Audiences primed by trailers and TV spots to anticipate a straight-up man-vs.-nature action-thriller — something like Liam Neeson in “Tangles With Wolves” — may find “The Grey” to be at once more and less than what they expect. Helmer Joe Carnahan and co-scripter Ian Mackenzie Jeffers emphasize detailed characterization as much as lupine mayhem while depicting the life-or-death struggle of air-crash survivors pursued by humongous wolves in the Alaskan wilderness. Trouble is, the pic’s dialogue-heavy stretches and ambiguous finale could leave ticketbuyers impatient for less chatter and more chomping. Word of mouth likely will be mixed, though Neeson’s marquee allure should help.
Neeson conveys an effective mix of authority, intelligence and anxiety, along with a generous dose of despondency, in his compelling lead performance as John Ottway, a sharpshooter employed at a remote Alaskan oil refinery to scare off (or, when need be, kill) wolves, grizzlies or any other wild beasts that might threaten other employees.
As “The Grey” begins, Ottway appears perilously close to turning his rifle on himself, sinking ever deeper into a suicidal depression evidently triggered by an irreconcilable separation from his wife (played by Anne Openshaw in teasing flashbacks). But when he and a handful of other refinery workers are stranded in the middle of a snow-blanketed nowhere as the only survivors of an airplane crash, Ottway must yank himself out of his funk and take charge.
Early on, Ottway guesstimates they’ve landed on the home turf of some very large and hungry rogue wolves, so he encourages the other men to trek to safer ground, all the while pursued by lupine predators. Diaz (Frank Grillo), the token ex-con badass in the group, is the only fellow to seriously challenge Ottway’s leadership, but even he evolves into a team player as wolves and wounds take their toll on the survivors.
Much as he strove for the gritty feel of a ’70s cop pic in his 2002 breakthrough feature, “Narc,” Carnahan here aims for the same balance of action and introspection found in such Me Decade survival dramas as “Deliverance” and “Man in the Wilderness.” Echoes of the latter are especially apparent in the flashbacks that gradually reveal why Ottway is a loner.
Carnahan also sporadically recalls “Jaws” during prolonged sections where the wolves — portrayed variously by animatronic puppets, CGI stand-ins and live trained animals — register only as fleetingly glimpsed menaces when they are seen at all. The oncamera representations are largely convincing, except during an inadvertently comical scene in which the glowing eyes of night-shrouded wolves bear an unfortunate resemblance to Christmas lights.
Impressively lensed by Masanobu Takayanagi on aptly rugged terrain in British Columbia, “The Grey” is thoroughly persuasive in its depiction of desperate men battling unforgiving elements. Indeed, the pic may generate involuntary shivers from simpatico viewers as the well-cast players — including Dermot Mulroney, barely recognizable behind a beard and glasses, and Dallas Roberts as the survivor seemingly least prepared for his adventure — appear to endure the very worst nature can toss at them.
Still, even auds enthralled by the Jack Londonesque scenario may find themselves fidgeting now and then as the scribes (working from Jeffers’ short story) interrupt the action for extended conversational riffs. One can appreciate their ambition to add emotional heft to scenes in which characters discuss their family ties, inner fears, checkered pasts, whatever. But truth be told, the film is far more intriguing in those moments when the filmmakers slyly suggest a psychic connection between Ottway and the wolves, and generate tension by implying some sort of karmic payback may be in order.
Open Road Films would do well to somehow spread the word that auds should remain in their seats through the closing credits for a coda that indicates the aforementioned ambiguous finale may not be so ambiguous after all.