You never know if The Grey wants to slug you or hug you. An Iron John bonding experience mixed with man-eating wolves, Joe Carnahan’s latest is just as likely to bloody your nose as weep on your shoulder about a decades-lost love. Drew McWeeny compared the film to an Irish wake, and I’ve been unable to get a better description into my head. It’s a boozed up movie whose emotions are running high, and those emotions could come out in tears or in fists.
In The Grey Liam Neeson is a lonely, broken man who has moved to Alaska to work as a wolf-shooter for an oil company. His job is literally to sit around as men work on oil pipelines and shoot wolves if they get too close. He’s a professional badass, essentially. But he’s also really sad because of something to do with his wife (something you’ll figure out five minutes in, but since the movie treats it like a reveal I’ve hidden discussion of it after a spoiler warning below). His tour of duty is over and he and a bunch of other oil roughnecks - rowdy men who work far from civilization because they can’t figure out how to be a part of it - are flying home when their plane goes down in a dazzling, terrifying crash. The survivors must try to make it to civilization, but they soon realize they’ve come down in the territory of a particularly vicious pack of wolves, who stalk them for miles.
It’s pack versus pack; the wolves are organized under a huge, rarely seen alpha but the men are in disarray, slowly being organized by alpha Neeson. What makes the men different from the wolves is their emotions, which they come to deal with as they trek across the pitiless tundra landscape. And so the journey is not just about physical survival but about healing psychic wounds relating to daughters, sisters, wives.
The Grey feels like the most Joe Carnahan movie since Narc; I once had the pleasure of dining with Carnahan and he’s a big, blustery storyteller with a strong and aggressive wit. He’s the kind of guy you would want by your side should you be trapped in the wilderness; I don’t know that he has much survival knowledge, but he comes across as having survival will. In a lot of ways The Grey feels like a metaphor for Carnahan’s own filmmaking journey; again and again the director seems home-free on a project only to have it crash and burn, leaving him stranded with a few compadres attempting to reach the next movie.
That sense of manly emotion can be a little overwhelming at times; more than once Carnahan allows the film to slip right to the edge of sentimentality, like when a dying man sees a vision of his daughter standing above him. “I get it, Joe,” I wanted to cry. This seems to be a real ‘your mileage may vary’ thing, though; for some people the naked emotion is cleansing.
The film’s other hurdle is the very nature of a survival tale. Survival stories are essentially slasher films with Mother Nature in the role of Michael Myers, knocking off characters one after another. The Grey walks a delicate line here, trying to make us care about these initially hard-to-like guys and then killing them off. It’s easy to feel a touch distanced from the proceedings as you try to guess how each guy will die, or which looming crisis will claim a life.
For the most part The Grey stays on the successful side of that line; I have to admit a certain disconnect from most of the characters so I ended up engaging with the film as much more of an existential stalk and kill movie. But there are strong characters in the film, especially Frank Grillo’s Diaz, a real pain in the ass guy who should be endlessly annoying (he’s the character who is always bucking against Neeson’s obviously sound wisdom and judgment) but who manages to be kind of sympathetic. Diaz may have been an alpha male in another life, but he’s never met an alpha as alpha as Liam Neeson.
Neeson is the perfect badass in The Grey. He plays his part solemn and reserved; a true badass needs no showiness. There’s a thundering sadness inside of him, one that Neeson keeps just below the surface, always informing his every move. And that sadness has an overwhelming feeling of reality.
SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH
I usually advocate leaving the artist out of the art, but that’s almost impossible here. Neeson’s character has regrets about his wife, and while the film plays it ‘coy’ for most of the running time it’s quite obvious she’s dead. Watching Neeson mourn his dead wife on film carries the undeniable echoes of Neeson’s real life - the actor lost his wife three years ago. And he lost her on a snowy mountain, while she was skiing, which only increased the echoes for me. The Grey has that Iron John therapy aspect to it in the script, but with Neeson it’s easy to believe the film serves as personal therapy as well. This isn’t to minimize the impact of his performance but simply to explain that his performance affects you on multiple levels if you know the true story. There’s a raw, naked quality to the whole thing that is stunning and brave. The talk of Oscar for him isn’t hot air, although the film’s release date makes that less likely.
SPOILERS END HERE
For those expecting a non-stop wolf-punch movie, be warned: the wolves of The Grey stick mostly to the sidelines. We see the glint of their eyes or hints of their fur more than anything else. When wolves attack Carnahan relies on a mildly irritating shaky cam to presumably hide the fact that his actors are battling props. Carnahan is usually very clever with the ways he hides his wolves, and most of the scenes featuring distant or obscured wolves are actually very clever. It’s a low budget movie, and Carnahan uses ingenuity often to make an impact.
The Grey is very well made and features some truly impeccable performances. It’s also often very beautiful, as it was shot on location way up north someplace - somewhere where it’s legitimately cold as hell. I found myself distanced by the movie’s quick pivots from brawling to bawling, but respect and appreciate what the film is doing. If we had one like this a month - lean, smart, muscular, thematically coherent and filled with good character actors - the cinema would be in remarkably good shape.