Placing its cadre of protagonists in a life-or-death struggle with uniquely long odds, you can’t help but watch The Grey and ask yourself, “What would I do?” Similar to the glut of survival reality/reenactment shows on the Discovery Channel and other outlets, Joe Carnahan’s film, which he co-wrote with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, doesn’t tell the tale of some ordinary perilous journey. Instead, it locates its dramatic fulcrum at the singularity of man’s physiological-existential border, where the answer to “What would I do?” has already been answered by internal and external forces beyond your control.
Well, that’s one way of putting it, and Carnahan’s film—in which a planeload of Alaskan pipeline workers crashes in the middle of nowhere, its survivors stalked by wolves—piles high the existential gravitas, repeatedly striking chords of solemn, brutal truth (or “truthiness”). Carnahan would have you view The Grey as a manly art-house masterpiece masquerading as a simple exercise in two-fisted genre anonymity. With nimble camerawork, slick editing, and an almost exclusively male cast that, against a backdrop of ice and snow, unmistakably recalls John Carpenter’s The Thing, there’s no denying that his pitch sounds pretty convincing. With latter-day, manly man auteurs like Carpenter, John McTiernan, and Walter Hill all but absent from the multiplex, the sad fact of life is that there’s nobody around to watch their throne, and Carnahan now sits in it by default.
For all that’s admirable about The Grey‘s surprisingly measured, often recalcitrant, attitude toward the usual audience-gratification stuff, the film’s pleasures are often stifled by an overly familiar slasher-movie pattern: Alien in the Alaskan wilderness. It’s almost enough that Carnahan and Jeffers find ways to distinguish The Grey from the long caravan train of attrition-driven scripts that have preceded it: The value of each man’s life is weighed by their relationship to the real world, his family, or his past. There’s little in the way of tiresome moralizing, i.e. making sure the default human antagonist—not really the villain, but, in the tradition of such stories, the profane doubter, the Ernest Borgnine character if this was The Poseidon Adventure—is punished in some implausible way that addresses his lack of faith. On the flip side of that, there’s no question that Liam Neeson’s suicidally depressed yet preternaturally aware rifleman will be the sole survivor of the expedition, and that the herd, so to speak, will thin out according to lines of code written long before Carnahan first picked up a camera.
Which leads one to interrogate the value of this supposedly hidden movie, this biker-philosopher in wolf’s clothing. On the one hand, Carnahan works to create distance effects throughout, relying as little as possible on affected sentiment, at least when it’s of the non-approved, non-manly variety. Phantoms from back in the world, such as far-off daughters, dead relatives, fathers who didn’t know how to show their love, all appear as they might to soldiers on a timeless battlefield. All through The Grey, we behold the shrinking flock through a similar barrier of ether, while Carnahan looks for opportunities to contrast their spindly mortality against the picturesque vastness of an indifferent forest primeval. This is all meant to lift the movie to a higher plane while resisting any claims to capital-A art; in other words, it’s nothing without its alibi. The viewer is thus wedged between the enervating familiarity of the and-then-there-was-one story template and Carnahan’s tireless efforts to render hackneyed material into an icy tone poem. Fatally, the poem is a literal manifestation—a four-line atrocity written by the Neeson character’s father, read aloud several times—that sounds like some absent-minded doodle by Hemingway or Shakespeare. As nice as it might be to imagine that Carnahan made the film as an apology for The A-Team, his apparent objective of making the least homoerotic sausage-fest of the modern era is frequently as dispiritingly prosaic as anything else he’s signed his name to.
Viewers are unlikely to notice how frequently Joe Carnahan distorts the visual field and switches out lenses between shots and sequences, so married is his technique to the unifying requirements of the script. In one scene, he might favor a Michael Mann-inspired, shoulder-hugging tracking shot; in another, wide-angle lenses will exaggerate the nightmare scenario of being unable to cross a short distance in too-high snow. Carnahan's tradition-based aesthetic decisions—to shoot in 35mm, to put the movie through a largely non-intrusive color correction process, and to use analog special effects wherever feasible—is almost entirely responsible for imbuing The Grey with the flavor of meat, vegetables, and potatoes, instead of the usual Froot Loops and Coca-Cola we'd just as soon get from similarly budgeted multiplex fare. Universal's Blu-ray comes equipped with a tactile 1080p HD transfer and an equally vibrant 5.1 DTS track.
Deleted scenes and a commentary. Carnahan and company watch the movie over a seemingly bottomless bottle of scotch, getting slowly shitfaced as the 118 minutes roll by. If it any point you envisioned Carnahan as some kind of warrior-poet among blockbuster directors, in the tradition of ramrod, gravel-voiced auteurs such as Samuel Fuller and Raoul Walsh, the commentary track is only going to confirm those suspicions. That said, it's an entertaining gabfest—and theirs is probably the only appropriate way to watch the film, after all.
A soothing lullaby for alpha-male viewers and survival buffs, Joe Carnahan's The Grey arrives in a tip-top Blu-ray from Universal—a form that's likely to extend its life indefinitely, as a manly man, scotch-sipping midnight movie.