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Review: Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey”

Macho death myths dismantled.
The Grey

“When we speak of 'seriousness' in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death.”

This quote—which comes from Thomas Pynchon’s introduction to his collection of early stories, Slow Learner—was brought to my attention by Ben Sachs. Though, broadly applied, Pynchon’s thesis is debatable, it goes a long way toward explaining what makes The Grey—a Liam Neeson vs. wolves movie from the guy who did Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team—one of the most serious and, in many ways, most accomplished movies to come out of Hollywood (or whatever we’re calling the fractured American studio system nowadays) in a while. It’s “an attitude toward death” that shapes every part of The Grey—from the pacing and structure to the restricted color palette, which often casts characters as wispy figures against a blinding blank whiteness—and that attitude is unsentimental, harsh, and, above all, profoundly serious.

Ostensibly, The Grey is an action-thriller, so, considering that it belongs to a genre predicated on a constant meting out of violence—and a sub-genre (let’s call it the “people trapped in the middle of nowhere” movie) the mechanics of which depend on the unlikely survival of the characters—one of the first things that stands out about the film (aside from the intuitive roughness of Masanobu Takayangi’s camerawork) is its nonchalant grimness, a quality it shares with John Carpenter's similarly cold-cold-cold-looking The Thing.

The possibility of death is introduced, that possibility turns into inevitability, death comes and is then considered—The Grey is structured as a string of scenes that proceed according to this pattern. The repetition recalls Sam Peckinpah’s apocalyptic Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid—except that Carnahan, it turns out, is even less of a romantic than Peckinpah was. There is no grand West fading into an uncertain future, no slow motion, no "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door"; these are fairly ordinary men letting go of their unremarkable lives in the face of a bleak, matter-of-fact, vivid, tactile doom.

Death in The Grey is crude, unfair and inevitable; this isn’t a movie about endurance or heroics—it’s about men being eaten by wolves, one by one, and the fear, anxiety, and resignation they experience. The decision to render the wolves largely as CGI silhouettes, has the (possibly unintentional) effect of making them seem more like metaphorical threats than physical ones; they neither look nor move like real animals, but are instead animated figures, half-glimpsed in the edges of the frame—nightmare shapes, wilderness spirits, or maybe demons who’ve come to drag the men away. One shot—of a torch illuminating a dozen pairs of eyes waiting patiently at the edge of the survivors’ camp—looks like a fairy tale illustration. And, in a sense, The Grey is the story of a fairy tale—the fairy tale of danger as the proving ground for a man’s character, and of being able to overcome certain doom by staring it right in the face.

Neeson—in a role so goddamn Neesonesque that it’s kind of surprising that was originally given to Bradley Cooper—plays a severely depressed Irishman who has taken a job killing stray wolves for an oil company. After a plane full of pipeline workers crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, Neeson—his rifle ruined in the crash—takes it upon himself to protect the survivors. It’s an exclusively male (there are only four women in the movie: two flight attendants, a bartender, and Neeson’s wife, who is shown in flashbacks), professional milieu that thrives on non-stop tough-guy posturing (early on, one character refers to Grizzly Man as “that asshole’s documentary about the fag who loved bears”), where macho myths of endurance and death are taken for granted—myths which are an integral part of the genre, and which Carnahan (who co-wrote the screenplay with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers) dismantles over the course of the movie’s two hours.

Positioned at first as a relentless authority figure à la Taken (one early scene has him bluntly informing a man fatally injured in the crash that he is going to die in a few minutes, and none of them can do anything about it), even Neeson gets dismantled; despite his experience, he’s frankly pretty awful at protecting the group. A good part of the movie is taken up with the survivors constructing makeshift defenses based on Neeson’s instructions—torches, sticks with rifle shells on them—that prove largely ineffective. This is Carnahan’s chief tactic throughout The Grey: to at first appear to be taking blustery machismo at face value (for example, the hard-boiled opening, narrated by Neeson, has a tough-noir flavor), only to disprove it later on. The early scenes—with their vulgar energy and interplay of unshaven, weather-beaten faces—give way increasingly abstracted demises (one drowning recalls Un lac) and a lot death-row talk, the men extrapolating on what they’ll do when the wolves—who always appear out of nowhere—will finally come for them (at about the two-thirds point, The Grey starts seeming like a movie about the epic struggle of Nature vs. Monologue). Things can only delayed, not avoided—and all the avoiding buys you is time to think about the inevitable.

The Grey isn't exactly the film you'd expect from Carnahan, whose most recent features have consisted of a post-Tarantino clusterfuck / reversible film par excellence (Smokin' Aces) and a campy, colorful action flick with a heavy John McTiernan vibe (The A-Team). But that isn't to say that The Grey is some drama disguised as an action movie, or that the thriller stuff is somehow duplicitous; in fact, Carnahan's mortality fixation only makes it more effective as a genre piece, and his keen sense for the construction and visual geometry of an action scene gives weight to the characters' fears. What The Grey suggests is that Carnahan is a once-in-a-blue-moon kind of filmmaker: extremely capable within a genre, but also willing to think about it critically.

Great review, Ignatiy. I’m now keener to check out The A Team aswell
Lovely article, but I feel cheated: what happened to Bresson?
Nathan, Bresson’s coming. Work on that and other pieces had to be interrupted for various reasons (the above piece was actually written several weeks ago), but the next Bresson entry, slightly delayed, should be here soon.
Wonderful review Ignatiy. What do you make of the Nietzsche connections some have been making? Any validity there? Also, is it quite simply time to start seriously paying attention to Carnahan?
A lot to like with “The Grey” — engaging throughout in a way that seems effortless. Though I agree with you that the “seriousness” of the film is a welcome change of pace, both for Carnahan and the multiplex in general, I couldn’t fight the fact that it was all a bit too overstated, too on-the-nose. I find this an odd critical bind for myself, because I usually want to stand up and cheer when I see this kind of stark naturalism bleed through to a mass audience (I almost did for “Open Water”!), which I’m guessing happened this time because of Neeson’s and Caranhan’s previous successes in films that don’t even begin to strike the serious notes of “The Grey.” But, frankly, for me the film felt all too much like a lesser genre film maker trying desperately to be taken seriously, as opposed to Carpentar’s “The Thing,” which is just a great genre picture confident in the depth of it’s own existential implications. I guess there are a lot worse crimes than trying to make a serious picture, and maybe I’m not quite the audience for this, but it feels kind of helplessly stuck between being a good ol’ movie about guys fighting wolves, and a triumphant piece of naturalism in cinema.
Ben Sachs
I can’t take credit for bringing that Pynchon line to a discussion of movies. Jonathan Rosenbaum cited it in his original review of “Dead Man.” To Jason: I think it’s a moot point as to whether Carnahan’s trying to be taken seriously with this film (let alone “trying desperately to be taken seriously”). I found “The Grey” plenty unsettling regardless of Carnahan’s intentions. The film imagines a bleak but plausible scenario, then tries to stay true to it. One could credit Carnahan with that sense of conviction—though, as Ignatiy points out, the contributions of Neeson, Jeffers, and Takayangi are quite serious too.
Very well written. Thanks for sharing this.
I’m glad you brought up THE THING. For me, THE GREY seems the closest thing to a spiritual sequel to THE THING that we’ve had. Not only is the film overwhelmingly grim, but there are few movies where the cold of the screen seems to seep into the audience. I found myself huddling up in my winter coat throughout the movie, trying to stay warm in the already-too-warm cinema. I like to think there is a very specific sub-genre of great blizzard movies, THE THING and THE SHINING being the champions of it. THE GREY, while not quite at the same level as those genre masterpieces, may belong in the same group.
Excellent work, Ignatiy. I just hope many others haven’t written the film off to be “simple” or “cliche.” It’s surprisingly effective, chilling (NPI), and very well acted – especially by Neeson, a veteran actor who has more life than actors in their twenties.
Alright, now I’ve seen it. I may end up alone on this, but I’m going to drop the M word here. I think it’s a masterpiece. SPOILERS AHEAD: I really like how you mention the gradual shift into abstraction the film makes. I mean, that incredibly slow dolly in on Diaz as he sits there, choosing to die, gazing and the mountains and sky. Or the final shot of the drowned man, his underwater face distorted by the reflected light on the moving stream. It’s as if each death becomes progressively more profound and meaningless simultaneously.
“It’s as if each death becomes progressively more profound and meaningless simultaneously.” I think you sum it up very well, Jack. As for Jason’s comment about Carnahan “wanting to be taken seriously,” there’s a pretty interesting interview where Carnahan talks about being both an Antonioni admirer and a Three Stooges fan and how, to him, the solution to negotiating the divide between wanting to make both thematically / formally “serious” movies and goofy ones is to make both kinds. In that interview, the contemporary American filmmaker he expresses admiration for is Steven Soderbergh, which I think is very telling — Soderbergh is a guy who seems to be interested in making every kind of movie.
“Liam Neeson vs. wolves” sums up this movie pretty well. Should be a band name!
I don’t think so Ignatiy, it’s one-note cynical/atheistic philosophical musings don’t show much of a critical look. They are closer to (but slightly deeper then) the conformist hipster trend in recent years of cynical nihilism in big hollywood films (e.g. the “subversive” big genre pics of Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and “Inception”). The film works for a while certainly and offcourse you have the scene where Neeson exposes a member of the groups macho fascade (as merely posturing as a defense mechanism to hide the fear inside) as a highlight. SPOILERS: However, during the final sections it reveals it’s empty pretentiousness and non-spiritual sentimentality with “Diaz” giving up and his laughable justifications followed by the handshakes. This is preceded by the foreshadowing camp-fire conversation in which atheism (in the form of redundant cynicism) prevails as Diaz’s feelings on the matter are seconded by Neeson’s “Ottway”. His final cry to the heaven’s for god to help him “now, not later” followed the non-response (no bellowing voice from the heavens to save him then?) is redundant and is finished with the undeniably entertaining but glib “ill do it myself then”. One track cynicism and dark sentimentality do not make a critically discerning look at the genre. The “metaphorical threat” is better expressed in another philosophical take on genre filmaking in 1985’s “Runaway Train”.
I liked that you pointed out the more symbolic role the wolves played. They were obviously not real wolves – more like creatures pulled from the mind of Frank Miller – but were terrifying nonetheless. In most survival films there is a sense of hope, or a cushion in death, but in “The Grey” there is never a moment where the wolves were depicted as having a soft spot, they were death in the most physical and relentless form possible.
People reading everywhere about “CGI wolves” might get the wrong impression. While there are digital effects in the film, the creatures were animatronics! Thanks for this review which acknowledges cinematic greatness that seems to come from nowhere. This unlikely masterpiece is the reason I am a film fan. Perfect on all accounts – sound, camera, editing, story, action, mood, horror, drama, characters, setting, psychology, philosophy… everything. It’s about the grey area of the choice between fighting and giving up, a.k.a. “life”.

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