Easily Carnahan’s best film since his debut Narc, The Grey manages to integrate substance with the sharp style on display in the likes of Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team. The A-Team was pure, unadulterated Hollywood fun, while Smokin’ Aces was both more and less, possessed of an idiosyncratic anarchism that left it beholden to nothing, but that also ultimately made it a purposeless exercise in stylishness. Nevertheless, throughout his career, Carnahan has demonstrated a real skill at casting, as well as working with his actors. And that’s a large part of the reason that The Grey works so well. Still, I have a couple of friends who are animal lovers, the kind who have to know before a movie if an animal is going to appear to be hurt onscreen. I’d definitely recommend those people stay away from The Grey, as too much of this film will make them angry, emotionally distressed, or both.
What’s doubly effective is the way The Grey‘s emotional themes play off of the real-life tragedy that befell Liam Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson. Here, Neeson’s character Ottway has lost a love of his own. We don’t know the circumstances of it, at least not until the end of the film, but throughout we get some sense that he was abandoned by his love, or that he was incapable of being there for her and that she left him. Either way, the character is full of grief and regret, longs to do something to save their relationship, but appears unable to successfully follow through. So he’s allowed himself to be punished by the elements at the ends of the earth in retribution, working with oil rig teams in Alaska, shooting the wolves that occasionally attack them. But it’s obvious that Ottway feels a kinship to the animals he kills, probably more so than with other humans, and hates himself for being their murderer. He’s caught in a forever deepening cycle of self-hatred and despair, and suicide seems like it may be his only escape and solace.
I think it’s interesting that such a talented actor as Neeson, who’s been in so much Academy Award bait, has, since the death of his wife, appeared mainly in genre films. I think it’s not unlikely that the best way for him to work through his personal tragedy is to give himself situations that play to it, that are visceral and allow him to face his own despair, grief, rage, loneliness, purposelessness, and godlessness. And this is certainly a movie and a role that draw directly from those dark and pained waters. Watching it, and watching the emotional and spiritually existential struggles of Ottway, it’s difficult not to feel for Neeson himself. And so Carnahan has a movie with a lot more emotional depth and subtext that the likes of Smokin’ Aces or The A-Team.
A character without the will to live can be a fascinating one, particularly when thrown into a situation of pure physical survival. As everyone probably knows from the trailers, Ottway boards a plane with several dozen of his oil rig compatriots, and it goes down. Only a handful survive the plane crash. And then it’s a struggle for survival against the elements. And the wolves. Whether it’s the removal of the luxury of spiritual ennui, or simply the visceral shock of immediate physical threat, Ottway finds himself fighting for his life. Hell, perhaps he’s only fighting because he’s in a state of shock and instinct has momentarily taken over, until a time when he’ll remember that he doesn’t actually even want to live. But for now, he’s the only one with both the survival skills and the emotional strength to be able to hold it together and lead the group, and he knows that he’s the other survivors’ only hope.
And as these movies go, the survivors always end up being an eclectic group of oddities and fuck-ups, with the more normal among them getting their chances to rise to heroics or descend to destructiveness. Carnahan, as usual, has cast some fantastic actors in the roles. Joe Anderson is a younger actor who has the charisma to be a huge Hollywood star. You can see him as the lead in The River, a new series that premieres on ABC this week. Here that leading man charisma is subverted and underplayed, not unlike Chris Pine’s role in Smokin’ Aces. Dermot Mulroney has been one of the best supporting and often overlooked actors in Hollywood for years, and in The Grey he turns in a performance that ranks among his career highs, bringing a lot of heart and gravity to the core of the film. But that’s true for all of the cast, particularly when working together in an ensemble obviously so collaborative and supportive of each other. And Frank Grillo in particular, much less well-known than even Mulroney, has been a working actor for decades and certainly never had the kind of career visibility this part is giving him. He really shines through in a pivotal role that counterpoints Ottway, and will undoubtedly get more high-profile work as a result.
I’ve seen reviews of the film from people who have critiqued some of the spiritual conversations and meanderings of the group. But really, when you’re fighting the elements and death is all around you, aren’t you going to be questioning your own belief system? Which isn’t to say that these are esoteric conversations; they’re much more along the lines of “I believe there’s a purpose for everything,” or “I wish I could believe in God, but I don’t.” And ultimately, that’s what The Grey is really about: how prepared are you for your death? And are you going to be able to face it head-on when the time comes? It’s framed by the struggle of a man who wants to have a purpose to live, who desperately yearns for salvation and meaning, and is failing at it. And it allies him with a group with a grab-bag of philosophies and spiritual beliefs, and it puts them in situations where they have to fight for their lives, and it lets us see how those belief systems change as they survive or die with them.
Carnahan does a fantastic job at capturing the harshness of the elements. You get cold just watching the struggle for survival, for shelter, for warmth. And not only does he excel at capturing the brutal, visceral, stark reality of the environment, but he also demonstrates a genuine sensitivity for those spiritually transcendent moments. There’s a scene early on when Ottway has to talk a critically injured plane crash survivor through his death, through the realization and acceptance of it, and through the experience itself. And Ottway’s resolve is tender, graceful, fully-aware, and completely unflinching. He’s a man who has studied and accepted death fully, and as a result has the kind of deep relationship with it than can only be a strength when walking the razor’s edge where the panicked and unresolved can’t function and inevitably collapse.
If there’s a critique to be made of the movie, beyond that of the portrayal of the wolves, it has to do with the ending of the film. It’s not really that the movie is vague, as has become far too common these days, particularly with younger directors. A friend of mine compared this laziness at failing to finish the last act of a film with the building of a three-legged table. Too often we’re seeing younger directors make open-ended films while telling themselves that their indecision is a strength of the narrative and a talking point for the film’s themes. And while Carnahan’s last-minute fake-out isn’t so much a narrative cop-out, it does rob the audience of something that’s been promised from the beginning, even if, in a broader sense, the larger questions are answered quite thoroughly. There’s a lot to be said for Ottway’s strengths and weaknesses as a survivor, and exactly how and where those things have led him, and in what ways he’s responsible for his own survival. But there’s a certain aspect to the climax that Carnahan has been building towards, and whether or not he thinks he could have effectively filmed it without destroying the fabric of everything else he’s so successfully sewn together, he really owes it to the audience to try. Considering that everything to that point was near-perfection, there’s nothing to suggest he couldn’t have pulled it off.