Considering that this film is about a group of men struggling desperately to survive in the snowy wilderness surrounded by flesh-hungry wolves, there is a surprisingly little amount of macho bullshit on show. My expectations were low on this one, even though I have a soft spot for Liam Neeson, and the last thing I was expecting was to be holding back tears by the time the credits rolled.
The story is simple, which makes its lasting effect even more impressive and worthy of discussion. In basic terms, a plane crashes leaving a collection of wounded and aggressive oil workers stranded in the middle of nowhere. They are rallied by Ottway (Neeson), a wolf-hunter who has also survived the crash, and who suggests that they pack up and make a move towards a nearby forest. Unfortunately, this only leads them into more torment as they are stalked by merciless wolves in the dark that appear at the men’s weakest moments, eyes glowing like torches, howls and growls rumbling and echoing in the trees. And yet as the story progresses it becomes obvious that the group are being tested as much by their own minds and by each other as by these giant, blood-thirsty beasts.
Each man is a walking stereotype. There is the depressed, silent but headstrong lead with nothing to lose, the jerk with an attitude who you want to see die in a violent manner but grow to like, the family man with grey hair and glasses, the caring guy with a conscience, and the big friendly giant who you want desperately to survive but you know won’t (he usually has a cough or a cut that looks set to turn bad). The film houses a million cliches, but I honestly don’t care. There’s something about the way it’s shot, the way it’s written, the way it’s acted, that steers the whole affair away from boredom and into absorption. Neeson plays ‘troubled soul’ with just the right amount of bite (excuse the pun), which saves his part from becoming tiresome, and the wolf attacks are genuinely terrifying rather than mind-numbingly obvious. The animals become a strange and unsettling metaphor for each man’s demons as he comes to terms with his own situation and his fate. Some individuals crumble under the pressure, some rise to the occasion, some put up a front, but all feel the foreboding presence of the wolves at their backs. How each man reacts to their own fear is what makes their stories and actions interesting.
Essentially, this film is a survival thriller of the highest standards. The joy of it is that it can be taken at face value, enjoyed for its brilliant scares alone, or it can be understood as an incredibly poignant fable about isolation and depression. Either way, it offers a rip-roaring watch.
FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★