Joe Carnahan is often touted as an auteur of the Extreme Action film, but he hasn’t done much recently to live up to that reputation. Smokin’ Aces was too frenetic to be effective, and The A-Team only had fleeting moments of over-the-top inspiration. Both aimed to go over the top, but neither did so memorably.
So its ironic that The Grey, his independently produced genre film that hints of Art House, is Carnahan’s first film that deserves all of the hype he gets on movie blogs.
The Grey picks up on Liam Neeson’s second coming, as an Action Hero, following in the footsteps of Taken and Unknown. But The Grey is the first film in Neeson’s recent movement with any teeth. Instead of sticking to staples of the vendetta storyline with tired visual traits like saturated blue imagery and unrelenting editing, The Grey is white and calm.
It begins of with a lengthy sequence in which Ottway (Neeson) narrates through a letter he writes to someone and no one, dwelling on a life that has failed him, letting us in to watch his depressed existence fall and fall. This could have played sappy or heartless, but instead it’s filled with earned remorse, setting out snippets of Ottway’s existence and exposing the deafening loneliness he’s forced to endure.
Of course, The Grey isn’t about depression. At its core, it’s just like most Horror films – several people of varying degrees of innocence are dropped into a bad situation, and one by one they’re all picked off until only one is left. That formula is applied to this film by isolating a group of men being flown across Alaska, and having their plane crash. People start dying immediately, and the survivors are forced to seek shelter once a bloodthirsty wolf pack makes themselves known.
From the previews, which tease a showdown between Neeson and a Gray Wolf, I’d been excited for The Grey as that movie where we get to see Aslan fistfight a creature of the night. But The Grey isn’t that kind of Exploitation movie – though it has no qualms with its status as an action picture. Instead of going for straight thrills, Carnahan is more interested in projecting a visceral reality that makes the set-up all the more helpless and desperate. The result is a tense movie where each scene is made all the more dramatic.
Neeson shows a lot more restraint in this role than we’re used to seeing from him recently, and he leads the film without ever having to do much at all. But he’s got a strong cast of supporting actors that aren’t quite movie stars to prop him up. Dermot Mulroney and Dallas Roberts, in particular, put in good work as normal, boring middle-aged men in a huge situation.
But the cast is outshined by a Crew and a director that aren’t afraid to take a typical Survival movie and treat it more meditatively than you’d expect from a $35 million picture starring an International A-Lister leading man. There wasn’t any reason to expect The Grey to be anything more than a disposable We-Have-To-Get-Home picture, but the movie Carnahan decided to make instead is noticeably better.