Meet Joe Carnahan, survivalist. Drop this guy unprotected into the lethal tundra of a January release slot and what does he do? Turns it into $20 million, an opening weekend’s top box-office take. Could any other director seem so right for a movie about a group of bruiser oil drillers led by Liam Neeson starving, freezing, and being stalked by wolves in the backwoods of Alaska?
In The Grey, Liam Neeson plays the restrained, macho head of an oil drilling team struggling to survive after a plane crash strands them in the Alaskan wilderness. Photo courtesy Open Road Films.
Part Budd Boetticher western, part John Carpenter horror thriller, part smug beer commercial, The Grey does seem restrained by recent Carnahan standards—temperamentally closer to his 2002 brooder Narc than to more recent toss-offs like Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team. It’s a stiff cocktail of violence, sentiment, and introspection, and if each of those elements seems too synthetic, at least the combination is bracing.
Neeson plays the human alpha, who knows just how to put his hand on a dying wolf or a dying man, and then just what to say. Also, he’s been nursing some heavy malaise, dreaming of a lost lover (Anne Openshaw) and lamenting their apparently permanent separation.
It’s as hard not to think of the snow-related death three years ago of Neeson’s real wife, Natasha Richardson, as it is to know whether Carnahan’s sense of opportunity here is courageous or crass. But on a gut level, it works: The Grey gives a vaguely cathartic sense of filmmaker and star as a couple of big Irish lugs doing each other a favor, working through some heavy stuff in public. It’s a nice touch that Neeson’s character is a sharpshooter who only gets to point his rifle twice (and one of those times is at himself).
So is anybody else in it? Well, sure, there’s Black Guy, Talk Too Much Guy, Glasses Guy, Asshole Guy, and who’s that over there in the…? Ah, never mind. Wolves got him. One Less Guy. With their numbers reduced, however, the men—including Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney—do come into better focus, even occasionally lending humanity to their token parts.
The Grey was adapted by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers from Jeffers’ story Ghost Walker, and its literary ambitions are built in, if not fully built out. There’s a sad, sweet innocence about this, like some warped old Jack London paperback in the pocket of a surplus-store-bought pea coat whose collar you turn up against an imaginary wind. There’s also a certain brand of macho bullshit that congratulates itself for deconstructing macho bullshit, as if tapping your temple makes up for thumping your chest.