I can guarantee you The Grey will make my top 10 of the year. It is one of the best survival horror films I've ever had to pleasure to see in a theater. It's smart. It's tight. It's stripped down to the bare essence of humanity, death, and the will of nature. If you believe the trailer, the film is an action/thriller pitting men against wolves. That's not true. The wolves are cursory to the fight for survival and become a metaphor for abandoning humanity. You know they're out there, circling the handful of survivors, but they don't swoop in until the social norm is challenged in taboo ways.
This does not mean that The Grey is a morality tale through survival horror. That's as inaccurate as calling it a thriller about fighting wolves. What it is (and excels at) is an exploration of the experience of humans on the brink of death. It's numbing and overwhelming in the way a great horror film should be.
Liam Neeson leads a strong cast in The Grey. He plays Ottway, a professional wolf hunter hired by an Alaskan oil refinery to protect its workers. The last plane ride home for the season crashes in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. The devastation is brutal. Only seven men make it out of the plane alive and those that are left are hurting physically and psychologically.
Ottway's job once again requires him to save the men against all odds. He trains them to start fires, appease the dying, and stand up against the growing presence of large wolves. He's forced to become more aggressive as the reality of dying begins to hit the survivors. He becomes the alpha male, challenged by his betas when his only goal is to keep them alive.
The wolves themselves are only an obstacle to survival. They aren't even the catalyst for the horror of The Grey. The wilderness is. We never learn what causes the plane to crash, but we do learn that the cabin becomes bitter cold moments before disaster strikes. The weather that they're trying to escape is their literal downfall.
Instead, the wolves take on the role of the other. Who are your odds better against: a group of desperate men clinging to life or instinctual hunters? That is a decision each of the survivors has to face as the film progresses. Going toe to toe with natural killers is deadly; confronting your fellow man willing to do anything to survive is just as dangerous. The men might not kill you instantly like the wolves, but they will grow to resent you. It's bad enough to be trapped in the middle of nowhere without losing the favor of the company keeping you alive.
This is not to say that the wolves do not pose a threat to the survivors. They do. Director Joe Carnahan uses a combination of trained wolves from Gerry Therrien, large animatronic puppets, and CGI wizardy to make the wolves' presence feel real and dangerous.
Even when you can't see the wolves, you know they are out there. Maybe they bay into the woods to announce their presence. Maybe the survivors catch a glimpse of paw prints or drips of blood that could only come from the highly efficient killers. The wolves force the men to react in strange ways to each other and their environment.
The Grey works so well because the film relies on a tight internal logic that defines everyone's actions. It's a mesmerizing piece of cinema that refuses to come unhinged or overplay action. I have never seen the audience of a horror film react so silently to vicious attacks and unexpected deaths. It's the numb of the cold biting at the mind of the viewer, forcing them to compress their emotional response as the survivors travel further and further into dangerous territory.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.