Joe Carnahan, much like Michael Mann, makes manly movies. Not just movies geared toward men (your Michael Bays of the world), but films about the experience of being a man. And while recent years have seen Mann’s work degrade somewhat in terms of quality, The Grey represents a career peak for Joe Carnahan. I’ve always found things to like in Carnahan’s films, but none of them have ever completely won me over. That changes now.
While The Grey is certainly more overtly pulpy than many of Mann’s films, it doesn’t shy away from asking – and answering – tough questions about fear, regret, faith and who you actually are when the sh*t hits the fan. Sure the elements, and the wolves, will certainly kill you if given the chance – but will you get out of the way of your own survival?
Carnahan, fashioning his own screenplay from Ian Mackenzie Jeffers’ short story “Ghost Walker”, clearly found a piece of material that connected with him in a way that no other film in his catalogue has. It is lyrical, gripping, intense and surprisingly touching. It is everything promised by the trailers, but it’s also so much more.
Neeson is the latest to disprove F. Scott Fitzgerald’s axiom about American lives not having second acts. The past three years have seen him emerge as an unlikely, yet extremely bankable, action star. And while he’s certainly in that mode here (the only angle the marketing campaign is really embracing), this is far from Taken territory. Sure, he gets to kick ass. But there’s a depth and sadness and warmth as well. It’s as if he’s combined both sides of his career, dramatic and action, into one singularly defining role. And without delving too much into Neeson’s recent and profound loss, it’s easy to see why he sought out involvement with the project. It’s the perfect role for him right now.
While Neeson’s Ottway is unmistakably the focus of both the film’s heart and running time, the supporting ensemble provides an almost ideal foundation for the film’s echoing themes. Dermot Mulroney, James Badge Dale and Frank Grillo nicely pull off the trick of representing opposing and conflicting aspects of the male condition while still playing fully fleshed out characters. Grillo’s Diaz grates at first as monochromatically machismo, but the character unfolds nicely into something both honest and unexpected. And while women in The Grey are scarce, their presence is widely and beautifully felt in a number of ways.
While we’re on the topic of supporting characters, let’s talk about the wolves. There are many wolves and many wolf attacks. They are omnipresent, vicious and relentless in ways that may defy nature as we know it. But as a metaphor for the elements around the men they’re perfectly apt, and as characters they’re never less than compelling.
But, as is the case with the best films, The Grey isn’t just a vehicle for Neeson, or Carnahan or the supporting cast. It doesn’t have enough lows for any one element to tower above the rest. In the weeks and years after its release the selling point of The Grey will be the film itself. The rare movie about men that acknowledges insecurity and never delves into machismo, it’s the first truly great film of 2012. A masterpiece of survival you’ll be watching for years to come.