Love might bring a man to his knees, but in this gruelling horror thriller Mother Nature aims to finish the job. In the freezing clutches of the Alaskan wilderness a pack of hungry wolves smell weakness in a group of stranded oil rig workers led by Ottway, a man quietly mourning the loss of his other half.
Liam Neeson makes a savagely deep impression in that role, perhaps because of the baggage he brings from his real life. In any case, it's his need for direction - both literally and figuratively - that gives the film its pulse and it's a pity that director Joe Carnahan doesn't trust this completely, instead loading him down with clichéd flashbacks. Still, Neeson somehow rises above.
At first, the fleeting images of his beloved create a haunting atmosphere as Ottway calmly steps out from a hangar, drops to his knees and tastes the barrel of his rifle. He doesn't do it, but a short while later his death wish looks set to be granted as the plane carrying him and his co-workers hits turbulence.
Even at this early stage Ottway is a recognisable outsider of the group; he is as quiet as they are rowdy, eerily still amid the panic. Carnahan produces a brilliantly visceral crash scene, giving him a rude awakening from a dream. But he makes a few too many leaps when it comes to Ottway's psychology. When he opens his eyes, his mind is changed: he suddenly wants to live.
It may be because Ottway is a born leader with an instinctive sense of responsibility. As a professional hunter for the company, he has skills the other survivors lack. They gravitate towards him in the chaos, hypnotised by the way he lulls a fatally injured man into eternal rest. And he's sure to have the same effect on those watching from the safety of their cinema seats.
He has the men hiking to the treeline after the wolves show up to spill more blood in the night. These beasts seem to tease their prey by flitting in and out of the shadows and are at their most frightening when they go completely unseen, because the creature effects are average at best. Carnahan uses fast edits too, taking a leaf out of Spielberg's book (re. Jaws), though he creates more shock than awe.
After making it into the mountains the group is whittled down to Ottway, family man Talget (Dermot Mulroney), Henrick (Dallas Roberts) and Frank Grillo as loudmouth ex-con Diaz. Ottway's developing relationship with Diaz is the most interesting to watch, tapping into Carnahan's apparent fascination with manly honour as evidenced in previous films (the best of which remains his second feature Narc). Mulroney scores easy points with anecdotes about his kid and Roberts hangs on apparently just to make up the numbers.
But they all serve to make Ottway appear less solitary than before and, of course, the campfire is the perfect place for him to start opening up about his past. What he says, though, is always less interesting than how he behaves and Carnahan risks undermining that with yet more flashbacks, even dredging up memories of dad. The moral of the story is literally spelled out: don't give up. Go down fighting. If only Carnahan wasn't so ham-fisted...