There are ways of dying that shouldn’t exist anymore; like being shot with an arrow, or run over by a medieval siege tower. Being eaten by wild animals is right near the top of that list. I can never quite imagine how you break the news, when “Chet” (hypothetical web designer and Apple enthusiast) gets gobbled up mid-Tweet: Lotta growling round here LOL… And the next thing: Chet’s lunch. Death should keep pace with the times. You shouldn’t be able to buy an iPad in the same era when you can be eaten by wolves. Unfortunately, the majority of scary beasts don’t own a calendar. Whether it’s 2012 or the Bronze Age; to a wolf, we’re still man chow. We always have been. It’s only iPhones the wild animals can’t stomach.
Joe Carnahan’s The Grey is set in Alaska, the frozen armpit of America. Liam Neeson wants to die, so naturally he lives here. In the first five minutes of the film, Liam puts a gun in his mouth. He’s tired of his job: lone wolf hunter for a big oil company. When his plane crashes on the way home, it almost comes as a relief. Now Liam is stranded on the snowy wastes with six other male survivors. Their only companions are man-hungry wolves. Apparently, the oil company is too cheap to send out a search party. So it falls to Liam to teach his new buddies how to fend off a wolf attack and/or, failing that, how to die like a man. Lucky for them, he brought his knife on the plane. Luckier still, Liam knows how to go berserk.
If ever a film star had the face of a wolf hunter, it’s Liam Neeson. He looks prehistoric, like a guy who might befriend a woolly mammoth in one of those Ice Age cartoons. His nose is like a missing piece from Stonehenge. You pity the wolf that would try to eat him. In The Grey, Liam is like David Attenborough crossed with Rambo. He’s got wolf trivia at his fingertips. Need to know the “kill radius” for a wolf? Ask Liam. There’s never any doubt about who’ll be the last man standing on this hiking trip. The other dudes are all dog biscuits. For the audience, the main fun is trying to decide who’ll get it first: the Latino, the black guy, or Dermot Mulroney. The wolves certainly plan their meals with D-listers for hors d’oeuvres.
This movie is tough as beef jerky. The plane has barely crashed before the first man gets munched. As director, Joe Carnahan seems to have spent his entire career living up to his own name. “Joe Carnahan”, the kind of name they give to teamsters. You can’t have that name and not be a man. There’s a scene, in The Grey, where a guy cuts the head off a dead wolf and Liam nods gravely, as if to say: Yes, that’s what a man has to do. Anything less and you might as well be Hugh Grant. We’re in Hemingway country for this film. These men are stronger for being fed to the wolves. Their hell on Earth is treated as a test of character. By not weeping, wailing, or crying for mommy; they prove they’ve got what it takes.
The wolves are computer generated, I suppose. It’s hard to find a good wolf in Hollywood. Real wolves or no, the film still retains a visceral urgency. Joe Carnahan has coaxed some fierce performances out of his cast and the plane crash alone is harrowing enough to make you wince. There’s a shelter-less feeling to this story, as if the world had ended. I could go right off the deep end and say Liam Neeson was playing Alaska’s version of King Lear. But future high school students are unlikely to be writing essays on The Grey. The film does contain some metaphysical stuff, but it’s most there to break-up the feeding frenzy. This is, foremost, a thriller, where the wolves might as well be hostile aliens. It’s made with integrity, and the ending isn’t a cop out, but you shouldn’t go looking for meaning in The Grey, beyond the fact that bloodthirsty wolves mean us harm.
There’s a line from an Angela Carter short story: “We keep the wolves outside by living well.” And it’s true: the best defence against wolves is living in a city, shopping on-line and viewing camping holidays as suicide. I’ve never trusted nature much. Even squirrels make me nervous. The Grey is the kind of outdoorsy Gotterdammerung that looks, not only plausible to me, but inevitable, as far as any visit to the woods is concerned. I’m pretty sure bareknuckle fighting with wolves is best left to Liam Neeson. He seems to draw strength from the contest, rather than, for instance, pissing himself. While I wouldn’t call being eaten by wild animals “a good death”, I guess it beats having a heart attack at the gym.