Too talky, too long, and more introspective than many viewers probably expected, this feature does touch on some big themes. However, helmer Joe Carnahan gives us plenty of room in how to interpret them.
As the pic opens, Ottway (Liam Neeson) is introduced as a sort of low-grade soldier of fortune, currently employed as a hunter/sniper, protecting a team of “ex-cons, fugitives, and assholes,” who work on a remote Alaska drilling operation, from bears and wolves. Straightaway, we see him take down a wolf, but you can tell that he identifies with these majestic creatures, as he hovers over the animal until it dies.
It is clear he does not like his co-workers nor his situation, and contemplates suicide, while he flashes on his wife (Anne Openshaw), who has left him for some as yet unknown reason. The cry of a distant wolf either distracts him from the suicide attempt, or inspires him to keep on living.
The scene now switches to a chartered jet, taking a number of the workers to Anchorage, for a bit of R & R, or perhaps in Ottway’s case, to the end of his term with the drilling company. His hopes for some rest on the flight are dashed as the flight becomes increasingly turbulent, ending in a crash—oddly foreshadowed by Flannery (Joe Anderson), one of the passengers.
There are only seven survivors, who think that their big problems are how to stay warm, and what to eat. But these considerations pale in comparison to a threat they soon discover: A pack of wolves, intent on killing them, to protect their territory.
Ottway convinces the group that they must abandon the plane’s fuselage to take refuge in the forest, only a short distance away. This is easier said than done, of course, as two survivors are soon lost to the wolves. Indeed, the survivors are knocked off one at a time, à la And Then There Were None (1945), also referred to as “Ten Little Indians” style.
Between wolf attacks, we get to know each character, and none of them dies in the manner you might expect, based on other movies of this genre.
The situation becomes increasingly grave, even as there are also hopeful signs. The group encounters an area that has been recently logged, and finds a river that is sure to lead them to civilization—if the wolves don’t get them first. Ottway relates a poem written by his father, to the dwindling band:
Once more into the fray.
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know.
Live and die on this day.
Live and die on this day.
Clearly a riff on Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, the poem reminds the men that as they fight off the wolves, they will never feel more alive, as that moment just before they die.
***SPOILERS AND OTHER COMMENTS***
It is revealed toward the end that Ottway’s wife “left him” by dying. Yet, a note—presumably of regret—is being written by Ottway throughout the film. He feels responsible for her death, I guess, but why?
Although you might surmise that Ottway is the last man standing, we never learn his fate, even if we stay beyond the final credits for a fleeting scene showing him and the alpha male wolf lying on the ground. The implication is that the alpha is wounded. Maybe there will be a sequel.
Verified attacks by wolves on humans are exceedingly rare, and a tale of the men fending off bears would have been more realistic. However, that’s already been done in The Edge (1997).
Much is being made of the connection between the death of star Liam Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson, and the bereavement of his character Ottway. No doubt, this charged his performance.