After the lesser-known Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, Joe Carnahan put himself on the map with the ultra-gritty and powerful crime film Narc. After that he turned to more mainstream fare with the fun but throwaway Smokin' Aces and The A-Team. But now Carnahan has taken another turn in style to make The Grey, a gripping, exciting and surprisingly emotional tale of survival.
Liam Neeson (reuniting with Carnahan after playing Hannibal in The A-Team) plays Ottway, part of an oil drilling team working in Alaska. During their journey home their plane crashes in the middle of nowhere, and the men then have to survive the harsh winter conditions, as well as fight off a pack of wolves who see them as intruders.
In what is essentially Alive but with a more thriller-like sensibility, The Grey had the potential to be either boring or "been there, done that" (maybe both) but Carnahan's solid ability to put together an action/chase/attack sequence lifts the film up higher than your average one of this type.
The cast is also what makes the movie work as well as it does, with veteran Neeson leading the way. He gives perhaps the best, most committed performance he's given in years as a man struggling both with the pain of losing his wife (how exactly he lost her we only find out later on) and the extreme hardships of the here and now. Other cast highlights include Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts and Frank Grillo. The cast sounds odd but it really does work.
The film's greatest strength, however, is the overall feeling it conveys. Carnahan does a great job of getting across that feeling of extreme conditions, vast open spaces which make the characters feel insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and the general menace of danger that awaits them with every step they take to try and survive. Not to give anything away but suffice it to say that not all the men survive and when any of then does get hurt or killed we genuinely feel for them. That's a testament to script which Carnahan co-wrote with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (Death Sentence). The ever-threatening presence of the wolves gives the film an immediate sense of danger, but the perilous fact that the men are all on their own in the middle of a frozen nowhere is just as striking.