The Grey (2011, dir. Joe Carnahan) aspires to be a good film. It ponders weighty questions: mortality, death's inevitability, individuals in a naturalistic world, the void. The scenario: workers at an isolated Alaskan pipeline facility are being transferred stateside to see their families. The jetliner carrying them home crashes in the middle of the Arctic. We don't know exactly where, but we are told early on that there is no chance of their being found. This seems unlikely. Airplanes are tracked on radar, they have transponders, when they go down people know about and come looking for survivors. The idea that a large airplane would just vanish in the Alaskan wilderness and attract no one's attention is the premise the film urges us to accept.
The survivors band together and make plans. Their leader is Ottway, played by (you guessed it) Liam Neeson. He is actually often effective in these kinds of roles. Sometimes he shows a certain amount of depth and insight. Sometimes he doesn't. In this case he does, to a certain extent. Ottway believes survival might be possible if he doesn't give up. These are all rough and ready men, with problematic personalities and histories, who for whatever reason have chosen to isolate themselves in the wilderness of the Alaskan oilfields. The movie seeks to humanize them by inserting glimpses of their home lives, of the daughters they think about, the lovers they're going to see. In the case of Ottway, we keep seeing glimpses of a young woman lying next to him in bed. They’re speaking tender words that we can’t hear. We learn through various comments and through a suicide note that Ottway has lost this woman and that he can never get her back, so he's surrendered to an empty, pointless life bereft of hope. We even see him in an early scene putting a shotgun in his mouth, on the verge of committing suicide. The is interrupted when he has to shoot a wolf that suddenly comes into view, attacking one of his colleagues. Only at the end of the film do we learn about the kind of loss Ottway has suffered and although it makes his plight all the more bitter and full of despair, it also imbues the final scenes with sentimentality. It's the memory of this loss that he is running away from and that he can never get back.
Unfortunately, the plot of The Grey is all too familiar. Men are trapped in a difficult situation. They try to extricate themselves. One by one they’re picked off. We've seen plenty of other films where characters are picked off by dinosaurs or Nazis or aliens or crazed monstrosities in the night. In this film, they’re picked off by wolves. The Grey therefore takes a predictable course.
The final scene reminded me of the conclusion of Runaway Train (1985), with Jon Voigt, standing atop the speeding locomotive, facing obliteration.