A plane full of men flying back to civilization from a remote Alaskan oil station. Bad weather. The plane goes down, in the cold, in the snow, in the middle of nowhere. One of the survivors, probably still in actual clinical shock, makes a joke about Alive, the plane-crash-in-the-Andes-cannibalism movie, and the other survivors laugh, and so that cinematic demon is exorcised, and The Grey can go on to be its own very different and distinct thing.
It’s own thing is this bunch of tough guys trying to walk out of the snow while a pack of wolves tries to stop them. It’s not really an action movie. I want to say it’s more like if Robert Service wrote Jaws, except I’m not sure enough people know who Robert Service was: he was a poet a century ago and he was nicknamed “the Bard of the Yukon,” and he was Scottish which isn’t the same as Irish but there’s a similar spirit in some ways. Which comes out in The Grey in particular when Liam Neeson — whom I believe one of the other badasses at some point calls “you big Irish bastard” — deliberately invokes the Irish temperament that combines violence and general being-a-bastard-ness with poetry. By not only telling a story about his Irish father who was a bastard who liked poetry — taciturn badasses do tend to open up about personal stuff in life-and-death situations — but also by being an Irish badass himself who narrates the film in poetic fashion. Like how he calls his compatriots “men unfit for mankind” and how he says of himself “I move like I imagine the damned do” because he misses his wife so much.
I tried not to think, while being wowwed by The Grey and by Neeson’s performance especially, about how what his character, Ottway, is going through is almost a sort of metaphysical extrapolation of what the actor himself (The Next Three Days, The A-Team) must have gone through when he lost his own wife a few years back. It adds an extra layer of provocative discomfort to a movie that is damned ruthless already. Because this isn’t a movie about fighting wolves — which is pretty ridiculous anyway, since in reality wolves mostly leave people alone when they’re not running away from those of us with guns pointed at them — but about loneliness, desolation both physical and emotional, and death.
Apart from the wolves here — which are fairly fantastical but should probably be seem as metaphoric anyway — there is a lot of real-life brutal shit on display, intense facing-your-mortality stuff, and it is anything but pretty. Like, after the plane crash, how Ottway doesn’t lie to one guy who is dying, and writer-director Joe Carnahan — working from a short story by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers — just lets this one death, of a character we don’t even know at all, go on and on and on like what would really happen. It’s powerfully moving. Death here isn’t quick or elided over but faced head on in the full sudden dawning knowledge of what it means… and these crazy motherfuckers working at the end of the world who think they’re tough have no damn idea what tough is really about. Plane-crashed dudes are frakkin’ crying watching life slip away from this guy whom they were probably punching in the face in the bar the night before. (We see that side of their lives, too, before the crash.) All the absurd romantic comedies Dermot Mulroney (J. Edgar, Abduction) — one of the badasses — has ever been in have never made me love him as much as his honesty here did. I was already madly in love with Dallas Roberts (3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line) — who has got to be one of the most underappreciated American actors working today — and he gets more brownie points from me as the calmest, most sensitive badass ever.
The wolves haven’t even yet struck at this point. The coping with mortality gets more extreme to the point where it’s gonna be waking me up unexpectedly in the middle of the night years from now.
Carnahan’s resume is a mixed bag of manly man action movies — the sublime Narc, the awful Smokin’ Aces, the deliciously preposterous A-Team — but what he has created is a movie that is very masculine without being obnoxious about it. Genuine, positive manliness squares off against bullshit macho posturing, as we see when natural leader Ottway, who easily takes charge after the crash leaves just a handful of survivors, asserts his alpha-male-ness against Diaz (Frank Grillo: Edge of Darkness, Pride and Glory), who appears to think they can all just swagger back to civilization while flipping off nature. Ottway is strong, clever, competent, and brave in the face of sheer fucking terror he’s not afraid to admit he’s afraid of, versus Diaz’s empty bluster and posturing. Of course strength, cleverness, competence, and courage aren’t exclusively masculine traits but human ones, but manly man movies don’t often make such an explicit point of noting the difference between them and the caricature of manhood we’re often presented with in pop culture as being the real deal.
I love too how even these badasses, though most of them make no overt mention of it, are drawing their strength from memories of wives and children, maybe even ones they’d never see again even if they do survive (since there are implications that men doing the work they do are cut off from gentler society because of criminal pasts or familial estrangements). The power for them doesn’t come in necessarily pushing to get home to the people they love but simply from remembering the things that define them as men. There’s an unexpected sweetness in that, in recognizing that even these badasses define their manliness through being husbands and fathers, and not by punching other men in the face.
So, you know, even with all the blood in the snow and the chest-thumping and all, this is probably the most frankly humanist movie ever about poking wild animals with sticks, to the point where it’s not really about poking wild animals with sticks at all. This ain’t no turn-your-brain-off popcorn flick. It’s a look-into-the-void popcorn flick. We don’t see many of them.