We Failed This Film is a series about various films that simply didn’t get the love that they deserved upon initial release. For the fourth entry, we’ll be going into the wilderness and looking at Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, a film that was mis-marketed and misunderstood, but stands as a deeply emotional piece of filmmaking.
How We Failed It
I’ll never forget seeing The Grey in theaters. The film had been advertised as “Liam Neeson fights wolves,” and if it had just been that I would have been a completely happy customer. I’ll watch him fight anyone, anything, any day. That was the movie I had actually paid to see, but the one I got was one of the best surprises of that year. It actually ended up being my second favorite film of 2012 (only behind Rian Johnson’s Looper). The Grey is actually a harrowing character study, and a meditation on man’s will to live.
Director Joe Carnahan just can’t catch a break — to look at the list of his rejected projects is to be on the cusp of a nervous breakdown. The man has had more films fall apart than even the longest working directors get made, and the ones he does manage to get made are all great (yet terribly misunderstood) and don’t receive the reception they deserve. (Expect this column to delve into his criminally misunderstood The A-Team at some point.) It’s a true crime of cinema, as Carnahan is one of the best working filmmakers.
The Grey follows Ottway (Liam Neeson), who works at an oil refinery in Alaska hunting wolves that circle the workers. He boards a plane with other workers on leave, but after their plane crashes, Ottway and six other men are forced to survive in the unforgiving wilderness as a pack of wolves hunt them.
As opposed to other films featured in this column, The Grey actually had financial success. Its budget was a small $25 million, and the film grossed double domestically with $51 million (and $77 million worldwide). Despite the box office success, it is now largely forgotten, written off by most as B-level action-Neeson. Some of this had to do with the split decisions in how critics responded to the film. Wesley Morris wrote, “It’s cheap the way The Grey wants to be both a Liam Neeson “Quit Taking My Stuff’’ movie and an existential thriller about survival.” Roger Ebert wrote about how affecting the film was, “It so happened that there were two movies scheduled that day in the Lake Street Screening Room (where we local critics see many new releases). After The Grey was over, I watched the second film for 30 minutes and then got up and walked out of the theater. It was the first time I’ve ever walked out of a film because of the previous film. The way I was feeling in my gut, it just wouldn’t have been fair to the next film.”
As I previously mentioned, The Grey also suffered due to the advertising of a very different film from the one Carnahan gave us. I took that as a surprise blessing, but it understandably rubbed others the wrong way. The most climactic shot in the trailer, which pumped up most Neeson-action fanboys when they saw it, plays much differently in the film, but more on that later.
Why It’s Great
Liam Neeson gives one of his greatest performances in his career as Ottway. It came during the (still ongoing) height of his action stardom, yet it was a firm reminder of his talent. There’s a weariness, desperation and tragedy that envelops Ottway that subtly morphs into determination, resilience, leadership and survival. Neeson pulls off that arc with such commitment and grace — a strong reminder that he’s an actor first, action star second. At the beginning, he’s ready to commit suicide, having banished himself to Alaska after deeming himself unfit for society. It’s a hell that Ottway thinks he deserves, as we learn in a letter he writes to his absent wife (whom he frequently dreams about). What he’s done is never stated, and this adds to the emotional communication of Neeson’s performance: you don’t need to know what he’s done, you can tell it was devastating from just the look on his face. The fact that Open Road put on a small Oscar campaign to net Neeson a Best Lead Actor nomination was a victory in itself, as they at least knew what an incredible performance they had on their hands.
His opposite is Diaz, played by the always-terrific Frank Grillo. Diaz is the natural foil to Ottway, constantly challenging his authority. Grillo guides the performance elegantly through the film, although he never allows Diaz to just be an asshole. His final scene is one of the most touching and emotional moments of The Grey, as he decides to give up, sit down and die. It’s a heart-wrenching scene to witness as both Diaz and Ottway come to a certain respect and love for one another in the face of death. They discover that they share the same first name, John, and Carnahan notes on the film’s commentary how he wanted to incorporate the theme that sometimes in life, it’s the people you hate the most that you end up having the most in common with. The scene is shot in stunningly gorgeous and still long takes — the audience can’t escape the dread and honest emotion taking place between these men — taking in the final view of Diaz: the wilderness in all its indifference and beauty as wolves howl in the distance, making their way towards him. It’s an image that sticks with you well after the credits have rolled.
Carnahan outlines Neeson and Grillo with a talent-filled cast consisting of Dermot Mulroney, Ben Bray, Joe Anderson, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie and James Badge Dale. Each of them bring out the human in their characters, never letting them fall into stocky stereotypes. One of the film’s best scenes finds them all sitting around a campfire as they talk about their lives they are trying to return to, reminiscing and laughing. There’s a lot of death in The Grey, and what’s impressive is that none of the comrades’ deaths come out of stupidity, but out of desperate circumstances and character flaws. Deaths are refreshingly driven by the story and characters rather than the other way around.
Carnahan and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi mine all the existential dread that they can out of the Alaskan wilderness. Shots of the mountains evoke a lonely, desolate soul that envelops Ottway. They also create one of the most intense plane crashes put to film, shooting the preamble of it in extended takes to heighten the tension and reality. When the plane starts falling apart, they use quick cuts to pull the audience into the frenetic state, and then keep the final shot still on Ottway as the plane is upside down. Watching it in a theater was anxiety-inducing, and it still has a similar effect even on my laptop screen. Marc Streitenfeld crafts a tense and emotional score of minimalism, yet it’s the use of the track “The City Surf” from Jamin Winan’s Ink that stands apart by heightening the tense, climactic and emotional final moments of the film.
What typically rubs people the wrong way is The Grey’s final scene. However, if they are displeased by what occurs, they clearly haven’t been paying attention. There’s a devastating revelation when it is revealed that the wife Ottway’s been dreaming about throughout the film didn’t leave him because of what he did — she died of an undisclosed illness. That moment reframes every action Ottway has taken and sends your heart plummeting through the floor. I’ve seen The Grey at least five times now, and that moment never fails to destroy me. Take into account the death of Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson three years prior, and both the entirety of the film along with his performance take on a whole new personal meaning. In some sense, you’re watching him confront his wife’s death on screen.
The film’s theme of man’s will to live then comes full circle as Ottway faces the alpha wolf of the pack they’ve been running from. He takes a moment and recites the poem his father told him: “Once more into the fray/Into the last good fight I’ll ever know/Live and die on this day/Live and die on this day.” Ottway then readies himself for battle, attaching keys and broken bottles to his hands like claws. The alpha and Ottway lunge at each other, as the iconic action shot from the trailer is revealed to be the last one in the movie. Cut to black. It doesn’t matter if Ottway lives or dies, what matters is that he chose to fight for his life. If you’re interested, there’s a shot after the credits that finds Ottway resting on the wolf after the battle, both of them likely taking their final breaths. But again, it doesn’t matter if he lives or dies, but that he fought.
One specialty home release has been done by Plain Archive, and the packaging is gorgeous, but it also holds the same special features as the regular Blu-ray release. While we can sit here and hope Criterion gets around to Carnahan’s filmography, it’s ultimately up to us to go out and support Carnahan’s next film, whatever it may be. (I’m sincerely hoping he does Bad Boys 3.) Whether or not his films find audiences upon release, Carnahan will continue to keep fighting. The hope is that one day the audience fights with him.
To go back to Ottway’s poem that he recites, it applies to Carnahan’s resilience to not give up, to persevere and to get his films made: “Once more into the fray/Into the last good fight I’ll ever know/Live and die on this day/Live and die on this day.”
Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.