Meet Joe Carnahan, survivalist (not pictured). Drop this guy unprotected into the lethal tundra of a January release slot and what does he do? Turns it into $20 million, last weekend’s top box-office take. Never mind that the competition should be easy prey for “The Grey.” Some hunts really are only about the force of the hunter’s will. And could any other director working now seem so right for a movie about starving freezing bruiser oil drillers led by Liam Neeson and stalked by wolves in the backwoods of Alaska?
Part Budd Boetticher western, part John Carpenter horror thriller, part douchey beer commercial, “The Grey” does seem restrained by recent Carnahan standards — temperamentally closer to his 2002 brooder “Narc” than to more recent toss-offs like “Smokin’ Aces” and “The A-Team.” It’s a stiff cocktail of violence, sentiment and introspection, and if each of those elements seems too synthetic, at least the combination is bracing.
Having been that “A-Team” leader, Neeson here again plays a human alpha male. He knows just how to put his hand on a dying wolf or a dying man, and then just what to say. Also, he’s been nursing some heavy malaise, dreaming of a lost lover (Anne Openshaw) and lamenting their apparently permanent separation.
It’s as hard not to think of the snow-related death three years ago of Neeson’s real wife, Natasha Richardson, as it is to know whether Carnahan’s sense of opportunity here is courageous or crass. But on a gut level, it works: “The Grey” gives a vaguely cathartic, wake-like sense of filmmaker and star as just a coupla big Irish lugs doing each other a favor, working through some stuff in public. It’s a nice touch that Neeson’s character is a sharpshooter yet he only gets to point his rifle twice, and once is at himself.
So is anybody else in it? Well, sure, there’s Black Guy, Talk Too Much Guy, Glasses Guy, Asshole Guy, and who’s that over there in the…? Ah, never mind. Wolves got him. One Less Guy. With their numbers reduced, however, the men do come into better focus, even occasionally lending humanity to their token parts. For instance Asshole Guy, played by Frank Grillo, is the ex-con who challenges Neeson’s authority — unsuccessfully, of course, but with more dignity than the movie had seemed inclined to allow him.
“The Grey” was adapted by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers from Jeffers’ story “Ghost Walker,” and its literary ambitions are built in, if not fully built out. One senses a fond memory of big adolescent ideas about man versus nature, and maybe an English teacher somewhere whom Carnahan hopes to make proud. There’s a sad sweet innocence about this, like some warped old Jack London paperback in the pocket of a surplus-store-bought pea coat whose collar you turn up against an imaginary wind. There’s also a certain brand of macho bullshit that congratulates itself for deconstructing macho bullshit, as if tapping the temple makes up for thumping the chest.
It runs most smoothly as that kind of horror procedural for which characters’ deaths seem more thoroughly engineered than their inner lives. But it delivers good visceral anguish: a terrible tree fall here, a dreadful drowning there, and of course the harrowing plane crash with which the men’s ordeal begins. Interactions with their lupine predators register less strongly, but it’s tricky: You show too much wolf, it looks too computery, silly. You don’t show it, you’re stuck with the offscreen-howl cliché — here mitigated, somewhat, by being woven into composer Marc Streitenfeld’s soundtrack.
Meanwhile Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography collects some arresting imagery but not quite enough clarity. And Carnahan’s visual potency — a rising-clouds-of-breath motif, a shot of blood pooling in a snowy paw print — gets dissipated by his self-enthralled patter. This movie might have been sublime had he found the will to chuck out a third of its dialogue. But then it wouldn’t be a Joe Carnahan movie.
It’s not easy to turn that old suspense trope, anticipating the inevitable, into something truly philosophical. But is it any easier to get into the frigid January moviegoing wilderness and get out alive?