Joe Carnahan is a director I have been paying close attention to ever since his low budget crime thriller Narc. This is a film that had an enormously difficult time being made, boasting 21 different credited producers, including Tom Cruise at one point, but the strength of the writing and the energy of the story kept this critical gem alive to completion. It’s not a great movie, by the way, but is a pretty good one. At a certain point the plot becomes unnecessarily convoluted and the great beginning loses some of its emotional impact. When I say ‘great beginning’, I mean specifically the opening sequence that was so shocking, visceral, horrifying that I actually paused the DVD, restarted it, went and found a friend and then made them watch it with me. I had to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating or had accidentally ingested some kind of drug. The rest of the movie is good, if extremely bleak, and although I haven’t thought about it much beyond those opening scenes, my interest was peaked. I kept an eye out for Joe Carnahan’s next full length release with more than a little optimism and I was duly rewarded.
Just kidding. His next release was the tornado of bullets, blood, and cliche called Smokin’ Aces, a movie that wanted so desperately to be cool that you can practically see Carnahan’s grinning face leaning into frame, peering through the camera, eagerly searching the audience for a happy face, for some form of validation. A hybrid of Quentin Tarantino’s style, Tony Scott’s (RIP) frantic energy, and the self-satisfied swagger of The Boondock Saints, this movie is a mostly enjoyable train-wreck. The plot is a shameless excuse to setup as many absurd action sequences as possible but, at the very least, the film seems to be aware of these things, even as it careens around like a terrified pit bull with tribal tattoos that someone has inexplicably set on fire. Also, it’s armed with automatic weapons (shrug, it just is). Needless to say, I was a little disappointed in the director but he seemed to be having fun and who am I to judge anyone for that. Somehow he was able to channel that energy into a more entertaining direction with his reboot of The A-Team. The dumbness was still there, bubbling under the surface, but with a more capable cast in the form of Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, and Sharlto Copley, the franchise was redeemed financially and critically. I left out Rampage Jackson on purpose because, all due respect, there is only one B.A. Barracus.
So at this point in Joe Carnahan’s career I decided that the signs he might be a serious, important filmmaker had been a flash in the pan. That his style was now developing into something closer to a third generation clone of Michael Bay, I could respect, even if it wasn’t a direction I had originally hoped for. Life goes on. Then along came The Grey, starring Liam Neeson and I was overjoyed to discover my instincts were not completely deceiving me and that I had only to wait a little longer. Set in the Alaskan wilderness, a group of plane crash survivors attempt to hold out against the elements while being stalked by a particularly vindicate pack of wolves. This may not sound like the most entertaining premise for a film and it does fall victim to the occasional survival horror trope: the sudden, unexpected jumps and starts, the frantic We’re All Going to Die Guy, the existential conversations about God, the thoughtful reminiscing about home and loved ones juxtaposed against monstrous, mostly believable CGI predators picking off the survivors, one by one. The story itself is brilliantly simple, completely engrossing, accessible and, somehow, fully relatable. The details are what sell this story so effectively, the atmosphere, the acting, the set design. It’s obvious throughout that this was not filmed on a soundstage, safe from the elements. Instead, Carnahan and his crew occupied a small town in British Columbia, shooting on the side of a mountain at the ragged edge of the known world and that fidelity shows through in the final product. As the viewer you feel transported to another place, a cold, windy, merciless one, far away from the warming glow of civilization.
Liam Neeson is one of those actors who is capable of elevating average material with his presence alone. The movie Taken was basically Jason Bourne if he were a dad but it made enough money to (bizarrely) warrant a sequel. In the Star Wars prequels his character Qui-Gonn Jinn was fatherly, wise, and knightly, even if he kind of went out like a punk. And I strongly recommend his performance in a period piece from the 90s called Rob Roy, which has a sort of historical romance quality to it and co-stars Tim Roth in a vile-yet-genius performance. Neeson has this kind of heroic confidence, this indescribable vitality despite the fact that he lacks the typical leading man good looks, and is kind of old, relatively speaking. In most of his movies he seems indestructible, like a force of nature and this is where his performance in The Grey left me haunted. It’s in this film that he really does something that I haven’t seen him do since he found mainstream success and that thing is the ability to project. He affects every frame of film that he is in with this character, this person who seems to be a dead man walking from the very opening of the film. John Ottway is putting one foot in front of the other for no other reason than that it is all he knows how to do. This character, without the story ever explicitly saying how or why, is a born survivor and an instinctive killer. And without ever explicitly saying how or why, John Ottway has no soul left behind his eyes, it’s either been lost, forfeited or sold and all that’s left are sweet memories of a previous life. He is conditioned and highly capable but he is at the end. This film is so compelling to me because where another story would look to try and redeem this man or explain how he has reached this point and teach a lesson, the screenplay by Joe Carnahan and Ian MacKenzie Jeffers has no interest in doing any of those things. And leaving the experiences that broke this man up to our imaginations empowers him as a fictional character and as a viewer, we easily project ourselves, along with our own demons, onto him.
This man survives this horrific plane crash in the middle of the untamed wilderness and instead of resigning himself and the others to their fates, he comes alive, he is suddenly invigorated for the final fight that he knows is finally at his metaphorical doorstep. This fight against the elements, this fight for survival is a pretty clear existential allegory: to take arms against a sea of troubles, to know, not fear, that you are going to die, to not go gently. It’s inspiring because of its futility, his knowledge and expertise explicitly inform them of how hopeless their situation is but his willpower is indomitable. His rage is still awake as the cold, unrelenting nature of the wild world bears down, visiting horror and tragedy on these unfortunate souls, like some great and terrible wheel that rolls on overhead, grinding away anything in its path.
To the last, Ottway pulls them onward and forward and through, until he calls on God Himself for answers, for reason, and the answer he receives is all too familiar.
The ending is an important one, maybe the most important one of all and subject to debate as all good ones are. Some controversy was raised over the depiction of wolves as malevolent, heartless monsters and I’d argue that they are characters themselves in the story, twofold. As intelligent, calculating adversaries to the human characters, they are defending their territory from invaders for reasons that only become clear as the story develops. And, complimentary to that, they are unmerciful executors of fate, meting out consequence, dealing death. Fundamentally, it’s on the survivors to choose how the encounter will play out, with fierce denial of the inevitable, with passive acceptance, or with fists squeezed tight and a battle cry on their lips.
I’m glad I didn’t give up on Joe. I’ve poked some fun at him, but in truth it’s nice to see the man find studio success and still be able to make a film like this, that is as brutal as it is beautiful. Which it is, strangely. Beautiful. It sticks with me and imparts a feeling that evokes Dylan Thomas. It makes me think that there, at that sad height, when it comes, with fierce tears, I’ll pray. That I’ll not go gently into that good night. That I will rage, rage against the dying of the light.