John Ottway kills wolves for a living.
They're not endangered here, in the frozen forests where Ottway works. They're not environmentally threatened. It's they who do the threatening in these Alaskan oilfields. While roughnecks toil in the snow and cold, Ottway keeps watch. If he sees a wolf bounding toward the men, he aims his rifle and pulls the trigger.
Crack! One less wolf.
And then, suddenly, the tables are turned. It's a routine plane ride to Anchorage that never makes it there. Ottway's onboard. Miraculously, he survives the crash, and he quickly exhorts the other survivors to not wait for rescue: No one is going to mount a spare-no-expense operation for a handful of roughnecks, he says. Not up here. If they're going to escape, they're going to have to do it themselves.
It's not going to be easy—not with the weather so cold, the landscape so forbidding. It'd be so easy to slip into a river or fall off a cliff.
And then there are the wolves. Their senses have already been primed by the crash. "There's blood in the air," Ottway warns. "There's death." The wolves will sense fear, they'll see weakness. They'll try to take down the survivors one by one.
Snap. One less human.
When we're under duress, do we descend into our basest, most beastly core? Or can we hold true to our better, more humane—more godly—inclinations?
The Grey asks this question and, in this area at least, it gives us at least a halfway encouraging answer.
Humanity here is literally under attack. The wolves are relentless in their pursuit, and it'd be easy for the crash survivors to degenerate into a dysfunctional pack that'd end up preying upon itself. But thanks in part to Ottway's leadership, most of the men retain both their will to live and their commitment to see each other through this incredibly difficult time.
After the crash, a survivor named Diaz begins to root around the corpses, looking for money and valuables. Ottway puts a stop to this, but after reconsidering, he too begins to pick up wallets—asking his mates to do the same. His goal isn't to pocket extra cash, but rather to bring the wallets back to the men's families.
Ottway plots out strategies and finds places of relative shelter to survive the frigid nights. He wills himself to survive, and his desire rubs off on the rest of the crew. If one falls, the others flock to try to save him.
When they have a rare moment to stop for a while, the men talk about the wives and children they've left behind for their job—the people they can't wait to get back to, the things they'd most miss if they died out here. All of them know that their predicament is dire. But they face the danger together, sometimes even smiling along the way.
"You're gonna die," Ottway says gently to a man who's bleeding out. "That's what's happening." Then he guides his panicked comrade gently through the process, telling him to let go, asking him who he loves. When he answers, Ottway says, "Let her take you, then."
Death haunts The Grey with a tangible presence. Each man knows he might not survive. So maybe it's not too surprising that they all ruminate over the nature of faith and God and the afterlife. Whether through hallucinations or supernatural means, relatives long gone come to retrieve their loved ones, and a beloved daughter tells her father one last time how much she loves him.
"We're all being stalked by time," director Joe Carnahan says in a press release. "The 'survival story' became infused with far more existential questions as the rewriting proceeded. I wanted something that had deeper meaning, something that questioned nature and life and God. The wolves are part of that."
Two of the party's most sympathetic characters are men of faith. Hendrick refuses to leave the crash site without saying a short prayer for those who died there, and when he's about to make a harrowing leap off a cliff, we see him mutter words—another apparent prayer—under his breath. Talget tells his fellow survivors that faith is important, even as he himself seems to despair of ever making it out of the frigid woods alive.
Others are more skeptical of any divine help. "The Almighty?!" Diaz snorts. "That f‑‑‑ing fairy tale?" When others speculate over where those who didn't survive are right now, Diaz says, "I'll tell you where they are. They're not."
Ottway shares Diaz's skepticism. But while Diaz simply laughs off faith, Ottway seems to have let it go with a sense of regret. He wishes he could believe … but he can't. Near the end, he seems ready to try again. When a friend is trapped in a rushing river, slowly drowning, Ottway attempts a rescue, pleading, "Jesus, don't do this!"—a simultaneous petition and accusation. And when he's at the end of his strength, he asks for supernatural intervention.
"Do something!" Ottway screams to the heavens. "Show me something! I need it now! Not later! Now! … I'm calling on You! I'm calling on You!"
The sky is silent, the treetops framing an endless expanse of gray.
"F‑‑‑ it," Ottway says. "I'll do it myself. I'll do it myself."
Diaz says the one thing driving him forward is the chance to have sex one more time: The last time he had it, he says, it was with a 53-year-old, 260-pound prostitute who gave him a venereal disease. In flashback, Ottway and his wife are seen cuddling on a bed; she's wearing a somewhat revealing nightgown.
When wolves attack, the screen fills with quick-cut, frantic images of blood and hair and teeth; speakers blast out screams and growls. We feel the struggle as much as we see it. As such, the impact is in some ways actually greater than if we saw more explicit images of the carnage. Films that assail us with clearer, more clinical views of these kinds of horrors sometimes make us marvel at the special effects or even smile at the over-the-top outlandishness. The Grey doesn't go for that.
Which isn't to say it throttles back on gore. A man bleeds to death in the plane, and we see blood burble darkly out of his fatal wound. Another man is attacked outside the plane, wolves leaving a bloody trail as they drag him away. When his corpse is recovered, the mutilation is obvious and horrible. The camera lingers on a paw print in the snow as it slowly fills from underneath with blood.
One man meets his end after falling off a cliff, smashing through the limbs of a tree and smacking bloodily onto the frozen ground. Wolves pull and tear at his body. Another man dies in a river, his face just inches from the surface. Yet another suffers from altitude sickness, eventually freezing to death during a snowstorm. And still another spits up droplets of blood and, after being injured by a wolf, eventually just gives up, sitting beside the river for the inevitable end to come. (The wolves get him before the cold does.)
The survivors kill a wolf with a knife, then stab it several more times after it's dead (and then kicking it and punching it for good measure). They skin and cook the beast after one man vengefully decapitates it. Ottway shoots a wolf, and we see it bleed from its mouth as it dies.
The plane crash gets visceral, full-screen treatment. In the aftermath, corpses are strewn everywhere.
A note about Ottway's fierce drive to live after the crash: It's given context, either ironic or not, by the fact that he nearly kills himself near the film's opening. He walks out of the roughneck canteen, leans down in the snow, puts the barrel of his rifle in his mouth and almost decides to pull the trigger.
Crude or Profane Language
More than 150 f-words. Close to 50 s-words. God's name is misused at least a dozen times, with and without "d‑‑n." Jesus' name is abused another 10 times. We also hear "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "b‑‑tard," "h‑‑‑" and "f-g."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Workers drink all sorts of alcoholic beverages at the canteen. After the crash, survivors break out the booze and drink quite a lot that first night. And Diaz tries to pressure his fellows to drink on subsequent nights too—to forget about their trouble through a haze of the hard stuff.
Other Negative Elements
A man relieves himself by the side of the plane—and gets killed by wolves in the process.
The title The Grey, I think, means more than just the color of the wolves. There's a metaphorical component too. It refers to the space between life and death. It points to that slate of clouds Ottway impotently cries out to.
It also reflects the ethos of the movie itself. This is, indeed, a movie made of colorless shades and muddled messages.
Before the survivors begin their cold odyssey, Hendrick says a prayer for those they're leaving behind—and asks for mercy for those who've survived.
"Thank you for sparing us and helping us," he says. "Oh, and keep that up if you can."
Some are amazed that anyone survived at all, calling it a miracle.
And then we watch as the wolves and the wilds do their worst.
It's a hard thing to see … men who miraculously survive one calamity to be devoured by the next. And The Grey can be fairly seen as a bitter repudiation of faith of any kind.
"This is what's real," Ottway says, dismissing the idea of a caring God. "The cold."
But God is never absent, not even in a film such as this. And The Grey therefore feels paradoxically spiritual. An example: When Diaz, played by Frank Grillo, decides he can go no farther and waits instead for death to come and claim him, the scene could be read in one of two ways: a man giving up, or a man suddenly seeing a more transcendental truth than the life he's lived to this point.
"I grew up with a heavy influence of Christ in my life but got away from it," Grillo says. "It wasn't that I didn't believe in God, it's just that I didn't think He believed in me. I went through some beautiful moments in making this film. To prepare for my final scene, Joe [Carnahan] and I talked about our lives and what we believed in, and we wept. It was a monumental thing to do this movie. It got me thinking about my faith again."
According to a companion guide, "The Grey gets to man's ultimate powerlessness and need for God." And I suppose, if you squint really hard while watching, you'll be able to see that. The questions The Grey raises with its horror are real. And while they're very difficult for the faithful, they're not completely unfair.
But they're punctuated by the main character finally turning his back on God. And they're all but drowned out by a torrent of f-words, muffled by growls and screams, buried underneath the weight of blood and fur.