Joe Carnahan, known for directing slick, macho joyrides such as Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team, just wants to be taken seriously. Apparently his oeuvre is less than respectable, and, like his movies, Carnahan seems preoccupied with how his masculinity is perceived by people. In multiple interviews, he has expressed concerns that his slap-bang action flicks might give you the wrong idea – that Carnahan is an asshole. So what does any bro do when his reputation is under fire? Why, make a grudgingly moody action film replete with manly ruminations and overblown flashbacks – if only for a semblance of character development of course. And who better to enlist as leading dude than Liam Neeson, the go-to guy for the grizzled, conflicted introvert of the new millennium.
Granted The Grey, written and directed by Carnahan, has more than its fair share of terrifying themes and opportunities for sublime introspection. Whether or not The Grey can bear the weight of pretention that often comes with the Man Vs. Nature genre is another question.
Ottway (Neeson), an ancient mariner of sorts, is running away from something. Why else would he take a job in desolate Alaska protecting oil-workers from bloodthirsty wolves (Does this job really exist?) and rubbing elbows with ex-cons and outcasts? After a failed, or rather half-hearted, suicide attempt, Ottway boards an airplane full of roughnecks, which crashes of course, leaving the survivors stranded on the windswept tundra. To make matters worse, it appears they’ve landed smack in the middle of a “30 mile kill radius” belonging to a seemingly innumerable pack of man-eating wolves. Luckily, Ottway, given his occupation and temperament, is an expert on wolves and artic survival, and he leads the men on a race against time and nature. If the wolves don’t get them, the harsh wilderness will.
If anything, Carnahan has a history of making movies full of visual grit and pop. From the olive drabs and steel blues of The A-Team to the full Vegas rainbow of Smokin’ Aces, most of Carnahan's films come with their own color schemes. In The Grey, it’s sodium yellows, blinding whites and, well, grey – all different shades of grey. In this respect, Carnahan exhibits a skillful eye. The Grey is at once breathtaking and claustrophobic. As with most movies that pit man against nature, the setting is it’s own character, and Carnahan wisely chose to film on location in British Columbia.
Likewise, the wolves were either real animals or puppets controlled by humans, with a minimal amount of CGI. All this contributes to The Grey’s astonishing sense of realism. When the actors are huddling in a blizzard or trudging through knee-deep snowdrifts, it’s clear their characters are ill equipped because they themselves don’t belong in such an environment.
The problem with The Grey is that it isn’t quite sure how to handle all this realism within the context of dramatic tension, symbolism, and taxed machismo. Much of the movie is predictable; the time spent either wondering through the wilderness being picked off by wolves or philosophizing around a fire being picked off by wolves. At each moment of pause, the audience is anxiously aware that just over the ridge or waiting in the trees is a wolf, waiting to sweep down on the characters and gnaw on their heads. In another movie this conceit might produce a feeling of chaos or loss of control, but here it only creates a horror-esque sense of impatience. Not doom, but boredom.
And much of this boredom is due to how the film deals with its themes of masculinity. In a world where a man’s wallet is the ultimate totem of his existence – they collect the wallets of the dead (see Deliverance for a better way of doling out the metaphorical billfolds) – it seems doubly suspect when the men openly admit they’re terrified, or they don’t, or when they sit fireside and swap stories of their children or sexual exploits all in an attempt to alleviate the desperate situation. Even more heavy-handed are the flashbacks – in which we see Ottway’s absent wife telling him, over and over, not to be afraid – the paw prints filling with blood, and the howling of wolves marked only by the steam of their breath.
There’s no doubt about it, The Grey is beautifully shot, the wolves are scary as hell, the movie pays its just dues to the formula, and Neeson, as usual, plays a good, stubbled, weepy-eyed Irishman. It’s enough to make up for the cookie cutter plot and the redundant diatribes about life and death. Not enough, however, to make up for the extremely scandalous pacing.