The Grey (2012): Of Wolves and Men

There are films that I expect to glean meaning from but leave me disappointed. And then there are those that do not appear to provoke thought at the outset and yet manage to do so, sending me out the theatre with gratified resonance. The Grey is one such film.

A plane carrying a group of Arctic oil-rig workers crash in the deep snow of the Alaskan wilderness. There are seven survivors. The task of leading them out of the crash site to seek safety falls on the shoulders of John Ottway (Liam Neeson). His job at the oil rig is security, a marksman protecting the workers from wild wolves. At the beginning of the film Ottway is shown to be suicidal, overwhelmed with grief from the recent passing of his wife. It is ironic to see at the end, he is propelled by courage to fight for his life.

In the cold expanse of Alaska, Ottway leads the surviving men to trudge through deep snow, trying to get to safety away from wolf territory. The men are pitted against each other, stranded at nature’s mercy, defenceless against a pack of carnivorous grey wolves. It’s a survival story, a suspense thriller that has me on the edge of my seat. But it goes further than that.

Director Joe Carnahan does not just show a group of roughnecks toughing it out in extreme condition, facing death at every turn. He brings to the forefront some existential queries, as one by one the men fall prey to the wild. Stripped to bare existence, how is man different from wolves? For what do we live? For what do we die? Such moments of ruminations are enhanced by Masanobu Takayanagi’s meditative cinematography.

As they leave the crash site, Ottway tells the survivors to collect all the wallets from the victims so they can contact their family, if they ever get back home. From the photos in their wallets, we get a glimpse of lives lived, and know that they have loved ones waiting. Following their treacherous path, we might sense that their outward skepticism masks a painful and silent hope for a transcending force, One who can save them from their fateful predicament.

The men don’t bond right away. The unruly, the scared acting tough. But extreme circumstances change them quickly. Sitting around a fire, they learn to cherish the memories they’ve had in their life, and begin to value each other. We know their fears. We listen to their stories. In one moving moment, Ottway shares a poem he remembers his Irish grandfather had written. Little does he know those words would become the fuel that catapults him to fight for his life at the end.

There’s something about Liam Neeson that stands out in a film. He embodies a kind of dignified charisma. But here in The Grey, it’s not just charisma, it is like poignant reality. The look on his face speaks volumes. In the film, he conjures up in his mind the wife he has loved and lost lying beside him. “Be brave,” he can hear her loving whisper. In real life, he just may be aching for the same, as his wife Natasha Richardson died after an accident in the snow three years ago.

Animal advocacy groups have voiced out their opposition to the portrayal of the Grey Wolves in the movie. Wolves are social animals, gentle and non-aggressive, they argue. The film gives them a bad rap. My thought is this: If a young human can go into his school and massacre his peers, and if humans can murder members of their own clans, why is it hard to imagine carnivorous wild wolves would prey and attack intruders in their territory? Showing that animals do act on their instinct is no disrespect.

After all, this is not a scientific study of wolf behavior. The film is less about wolves than men. The questions it poses cannot be answered by Science. And if you have to be accurate about all the facts, it’s not in Alaska where they shot the film, but here in Arti’s territory of Western Canada, Alberta and British Columbia to be exact. But what does it matter?

I will not give away spoiler about the ending, for it struck me most strongly and left me with deep resonance as I walked out of the theatre. It is poignant and powerful, although I did hear a gasp of ‘what?’ from someone in the dark theatre. If you go to see this movie, do sit through the credits, and stay there until the very end of the roll, you’ll see something more.

Yes, there is suspense and some action. But what’s more important is that there are quiet moments for ruminations. If you are comfortable with that, you would likely care to follow these men in their precarious strive for survival.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

11 thoughts on “The Grey (2012): Of Wolves and Men”

  1. Another excellent review, and another film to see. It’s getting to the point where I rely on you to direct me to the films most worth seeing, and ensuring that when I do see them, I’ll also observe more carefully. I also really like Liam Neeson as an actor (did that last really need to be said?) and a few months saw the film that he and Natacha Richardson starred in when they first met, followed immediately after by the first film he made after her death. Such a sad story, but I’m glad he continues to do such good work.


    Thanks for your kind words, again. Now for the film that LN and NR starred in when they first met, do you mean “Nell”. If so, you’d probably be interested to read my post in the above link embedded in the phrase about Natasha Richardson. You can say it’s my tribute to her.

    The Grey is a better movie than Liam Neeson’s other works in recent years, I feel. Although I really enjoyed ‘Taken’… but not the other ones following. Which one did you mean was his first after Natasha’s death? It was just so tragic and sad… and happened in Canada too.



  2. We meant to catch this one at the theater but never did, so now will grab it on tv “on demand”. It sounds like one we would enjoy. Thanks for the great (no spoiler) review.


    I wonder how it would look on a smaller screen. I hope you’ll enjoy it just the same. Do stop by again after you’ve seen it and share with us your response.



  3. I am a big fan of Liam Neeson. I had a chance to go see this film but passed because of the subject matter, now after reading your review I want to kick myself. Thanks again for another insightful reveiw, I am especially touched by your paragraph about Liam Neeson’s “dignified charisma”.
    I last saw him in Unknown, the film was so, so, but as always, he delivered a convincing portrayal of the character he portrait.


    I’ve appreciated your comment very much. In a post I wrote 3 years ago, I said this: “After March 18, I look at Liam Neeson differently.” That of course was the date Natasha Richardson died. On that post, I reviewed the movie “Taken”, which I must say, is surprisingly gratifying. Seeing a loving ex-CIA Dad go all out to save his daughter from the bad guys of a human smuggling ring. You might like to click here to read my post. Here in The Grey, seems just too coincidental, a wife recently passed away, you can see the pain on his face, and the ambivalence of living with such a loss… until your life is really being threatened.



  4. I enjoyed your review. We don’t go to movies very often and films move quickly out of our area – they usually keep the animated ones and those for teenagers. I don’t think I would like the movie you talked about in your last post, about We need to talk about Kevin. From your description it sounds like he was a very sick kid and his mother could not cope or not fast enough.

    I just happen to read an article yesterday about children – it said that 5% of school-age American children are diagnosed with ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ) but French children only .05%. US children take a lot more medicine than French ones. The article tried to explain why and also went on to explain the difference in the way of raising children in the US and France. I know there is a large difference as I can tell when I go home. You may like to read this article; it was in Psychology Today here is the link: I don’t think this Kevin movie would go well in France.


    1. Vagabonde,

      Thanks for the link. This piece of article makes a lot of sense. ‘Deviance’ and ‘illness’ often are arbitrarily defined according to society’s values and norms. And for a mother of a Chinese heritage (but no, not a Tiger Mom), I’m more a subscriber of the French parenting style as described in the article. As for my review of the movie ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, commenters who have read the book point out that it searches deeper into the psyche of the woman, apprehensive of pregnancy and troubled by motherhood. While the film I feel focuses more on the suspense and shocking effects by dwelling on the evil schemes of the son, showing the helpless, unresolved scenario of parental nightmare.
      And FYI, it’s nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival last year.


  5. I am a Liam fan. And have heard him speak several times about the movie and thought all along that I wasn’t sure I could sit through it. Unless I knew the end first!!! So it was with great interest that I read your review and am intrigued by the high marks you give it, yet even without seeing it, I get what you’re saying. And sense that Neeson would only engage in something of some deepr worth. So thanks for this review. I will still tense up and probably pace the room while watching it (as a rental, of course) but I gotta tell you, I really would like to know the ending. It wouldn’t ruin it for me; it would only take away some of the tension. Ah, but you’re not going to tell me so, yes, I’ll have to watch it.

    BTW, still talking about The Artist here. Jean duJardin (or John from the Garden, as I call him to make our kids chuckle) was on Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago and was wonderful in the skit Les Jeunes de Paris with Zoe Deschanel. You can find it on YouTube. I just outright enjoy that guy! and the movie, of course. Can you believe it did a mini-“sweep” at the Oscars? Bravo, I say.


    1. Oh,

      Just this once, try to go without knowing the ending. Because… I simply can’t give it away. But I know it can only evoke two reactions, love or hate. Try to appreciate it in context with the existential thoughts I’ve mentioned here. Looks like these are the kinds of reactions generally towards the film: Animal rights groups call for a boycott, some walk-out during the movie due to its ‘slow pace’, but the other camp is high praise. And I sit well in there.

      Ha, still thinking about Jean Dujardin… I saw excerpts of his SNL gig. He’s a natural, isn’t he? Yes, the Oscar sweep was quite something considering it’s a French-made, silent B/W film of low budget, and to N. Am., unknown actors. You might be interested to read my Oscar post here.


  6. Thanks for this take on the film — I had hesitated — didn’t seem like my kind of thing, but I really do like Liam Neeson and he rarely makes a film that doesn’t have something behind it, so I’ve been on the fence. As Diana said, I think I get what you’re saying without seeing the movie, but now I think I would like to. As always, you introduce me to the best stuff!


    This is a very different kind of film. Hard to find a niche audience for this one, which makes it so unique. LN’s films in these few years are mostly action/adventure types. I always think he needs some escape too. Have you seen Taken? I quite like that one, and curious about its sequel under production now.



  7. If I have any quarrel with animal rights’ activists (and I do have a few), primary is the growing tendency to romanticize nature. Why it happens I can only speculate, but neither humans nor animals benefit when it does.

    This film does appeal to me. It seems a perfect analogy to the course our society is on now – and I suspect there are lessons here which would be as valuable to us as to the men trekking across the Arctic.

    Beyond that, there are whole populations who are facing similar conditions. I recently had as house guests people I’d worked with in Liberia. They’ve been back since the civil war there, and told chilling tales of people I knew picking up what they could carry and walking hundreds of miles to escape marauding troops – and then, when they heard it was safe, walking back. Instead of facing wolves, they faced danger from their own countrymen, and so on.

    I used to avoid films like this – even tv shows – because I wanted everything “to be all right”. Now, I know that sometimes things aren’t going to be all right, and it’s important to think about what I’ll do when they aren’t.


    1. Linda,

      You’ll find more and more films nowadays no long follow the neatly resolved ending. The trend tends to favor the ‘hung jury’ ending. But as they say, that’s life. My last post is one of them, and I can think of many others. For this Awards Season, the Best Foreign Film from Iran “A Separation” is another example, and a great film too.

      Anyway, if by chance you come across The Grey, go for it and see what you think. Of wolves and men… the questions laid out there in the open. It’s finding the answers that takes all the pondering. But as a good film, during that process of rumination, it offers some cinematic and suspenseful moments. The ending, naturally, is open for discussion.


  8. Hi Arti,

    Nice blog, brilliant review. From the epigraph to your blog, I was sure you’d like The Grey, for it gives one much to think about.

    Have you read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea? It seems like it was the inspiration for this movie. It deals with the same eternal themes of what it means to be a man; testing yourself against nature and, in the process, figuring out who you are.

    And, really, don’t the ripples teach us more than the placid calm?


    Welcome! Glad you’ve found my epigraph interesting, and thanks for Tweeting it! Yes, The Old Man and the Sea is definitely an inspiring work, posing thoughtful existential questions… something all good lit. and films share.
    You’re welcome to make some ripples in this small pond.



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