At first blush, Joe Carnahan’s The Grey (2012) appears as if it’s going to be an action/survival/horror film that deliberately compares human and animal natures. That leitmotif is developed well as the alpha males in both a human “tribe” and timber-wolf pack assert their authority over unruly members.
The Grey follows the harrowing final journey of John Ottway (Liam Neeson), a man who -- following the death of his wife Ana (Anne Openshaw) -- has all but exiled himself from human civilization. Ottway now holds twilight jobs at isolated Arctic oil refineries, protecting the roughneck workers there from wolf incursions. He kills wolves for a living, in other words, and he protects people he doesn’t even like.
In Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), a grieving father, Dr. Tore (Max Von Sydow), gazed Heavenward and asked God for some justification of the trials that man goes through in this world.
The Grey sets up a very interesting and tension-filled dynamic regarding death, and about knowing when to hold on and when it is time to surrender. For example, the characters all hold onto their humanity by carrying with them on their trek the wallets of the dead. The wallets are filled with photographs of loved ones. These photos are reminders of identity and also reminders that the dead once existed and walked this earth. Eventually, however, these keepsakes of another life must be put down, because the wild is not a place of civilization, and the wallets are an indication of false hope, of a destination that will never be reached. The rapacious wolves carry no keepsakes of the dead, by contrast.
The Grey is a beautiful, thought-provoking film, and one that also happens to feature some incredibly intense, incredibly graphic violence. But unlike Shark Night, for example, the violence here truly matters because Carnahan and writer Ian MacKenzie Jeffers are able to distinguish the “damned” roughnecks in ways that matter, and affect us as viewers. These guys are rough and tumble, yes, but they are also fathers trying to eke out a living for their families. They are also brothers and sons, and some of them just don’t want to die without getting to have sex one more time. These men may not matter to society at large, but they matter to us because of our common humanity.