If I injected testosterone directly into my heart muscle for a week, I still wouldn’t be able to keep up with the sheer and utter manliness of Joe Carnahan’s The Grey. Pop culture seems to equate “manliness” with “pubescent male preoccupations,” and as such most films geared towards the male sex – which seems like most movies, really – pander to our most immature interests. Fast cars. Explosions. Boobies. Giant robots. Marijuana. Apes. It’s okay to like all of those things, especially apes I think, but if you’ve ever wondered why there are so many man-children running around these days, that’s a pretty good place to start looking for answers. The Grey has a stiff middle finger raised to that kind of audience. This is a movie for men – real men – and it’s the kind of confident, uncompromising ass-kickery we haven’t seen since the heyday of Walter Hill.
Liam Neeson, that modern paragon of macho dignity, stars as John Ottway, a man who makes a living killing wolves at an Alaskan oil rigging station. He’s so sick of life’s slings and arrows that he wants to kill himself, but he just can’t bring himself to follow through with it. En route back to the contiguous United States, his airplane crashes in the Yukon, and the few survivors – including such fine actors as Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney and Frank Grillo – are swiftly beset on all sides by a pack of wolves. With almost no means of defending themselves, Ottway and his exclusively male companions are forced to trek deeper into the wilderness to save their own lives, because no one else is going to do it for them.
The Grey is one of the great “Poor Bastard” movies, in which a hero or group of heroes is perpetually screwed by some unseen, cosmic force that warps time and space to destroy them for its own selfish reasons. God, or perhaps merely Joe Carnahan, wants the men of The Grey to suffer, because through their misery and even their deaths comes a story of genuine inspiration. Ottway may have been willing to kill himself when there was nothing to live for, but when there’s nothing left to do but survive he fights tooth and nail to do just that. It’s the kind of screenplay you’d expect to find in Jigsaw’s personal effects. Carnahan directs his thriller with an immersive “You Are There” aesthetic. The unfettered flash in which he so wallowed in 2006’s Smokin’ Aces peeks through the grim fog of absolute cynicism only once or twice, to convey the greatness of the actions normal men are willing to take in the face of imminent death. You'll find some clichés in the screenplay, co-written by Carnahan and Ian McKenzie Jeffers, but they serve to give The Grey some familiar territory for the audience to latch onto, and for the film to frequently subvert with bitter, world-weary resignation. It’s Carnahan’s best film since Narc, and easily his most absorbing work to date.
If there’s a message in The Grey, it seems to be “F*ck you.” Yes, f*ck you to anyone who won’t help themselves, who relies on faith to avoid solving their own problems, and who thinks that being a man has anything whatsoever to do with Ed Hardy. Its story of determination takes on a nearly biblical quality, like the story of Job, if Job had the stones to stick up for himself. By The Grey's bleak conclusion such sentiments are overpowering, flying in the face of Hollywood convention and earning a rousing cheer for its troubles. This is a bold, uncompromising film that can’t be dismissed as mere entertainment, no matter how thrilling it is.