Ottway (Liam Neeson) works on the crude oil fields of Alaska, a job which requires a certain stamina and a certain attitude, one which matches the tough conditions, especially in winter as it is now. But he is a man with a past, one which has been troubling him for some time since he would dearly love to see his wife (Anne Openshaw) again, but knows that is impossible, even though he carefuly composes letters to her which he will then crumple up and throw away. So bad has this got that one night he ventures out into the snow after visiting a bar, and puts his rifle muzzle into his mouth...
Ah, but he doesn't pull the trigger, for what he hears out there in the darkness reminds him that he doesn't want to give up on living just yet. Or should that be give up on surviving? For the howl of wolves reaches his ears and he wishes to defy them, as in this film the wolves represent death. From some angles, The Grey was a cross between The Flight of the Phoenix with snow instead of sand, and The David Mamet-scripted wilderness movie The Edge, except with a pack of those wolves instead of a bear, though no less heavy in the intellectual pretensions department. And as a result, this was not exactly the film audiences were expecting to see.
Call it the Taken effect, but when the word got around this was the Liam Neeson versus nature red in tooth and claw movie, that kind of action was what many anticipated, and plenty of it, therefore too many people were let down by what amounted to a moody meditation on life and death and the reasons we keep living at all. With added wolf attacks, of course, but with the screenplay adapting Ian Mackenzie Jeffers' novella, the straining towards a literary profundity was not everyone's idea of a fun night out at the movies. On the other hand, The Grey did find an receptive audience among those for whom this brave stab at something more meaningful than your average slam bang action flick was welcome.
What happens to Ottway is that after hearing those howls he changes his mind about meeting his maker, and it's one of the themes of the film that there may not be a God overseeing all this at all, for if there was surely He would be more compassionate than in Ottway's experience. That's nothing on what's heading his way, as he opts to join the rest of the workers taking leave to fly out of this isolated and inhospitable corner of Alaska, only fate, or whatever is governing his path, sees to it that the aircraft hits a hell of a storm and it crashes. Ottway, though previously having wished to be dead, now finds when the possibility of dying not on his own terms raises its head that he would rather fight against the elements, because it's not simply his life on the line.
So there are seven survivors of the crash to take care of, and Ottway elects himself their leader, not that all are happy with this but he was hired to keep the local wildlife away from the workers and he carries on that role when the wolves begin to circle. Surely in real life these animals wouldn't attack at all, preferring to wait until the men had died of exposure before feasting on their caracasses, but we were dealing with symbolism here, as the canines were the embodiment of the death that awaits us all. There are many ways they can catch up with us, and they are delineated here, as one after another characters succumb to disease, physical weakness (illustrated by that one wearing glasses), accident, and even simply giving up on things which pretty much doubles as suicide with those ravenous beasts around. Quite what all this meant aside from we're doomed and you'd better face that fact was up to the viewer, and if you'd prefer films that lightened up a bit The Grey was not for you, but it did have a curious integrity to its bleakness. Music by Marc Streitenfeld.