On first glance, The Grey looks like familiar Hollywood territory: A group of roughnecks finds themselves stranded in the Alaskan wilderness, hunted by a pack of vicious wolves. Liam Neeson, star of recent action movies like Taken and Unknown, plays the leader of the group.
The movie is directed by Joe Carnahan, also known for directing actioners like Smokin' Aces and a recent reimagining of The A-Team, but Carnahan says the experience of directing The Grey was different. Uncomfortable with being perceived just as "this schmucky action director," Carnahan says he wanted to be taken seriously this time around.
So while The Grey may start out as a survivalist thriller, Carnahan shifts the focus from generic action to something more real. For starters, the men don't exhibit the qualities one might expect to see in this kind of movie. At the outset, they're tired, scared, and afraid to die.
Carnahan says this aspect of the film is partly a reaction to his getting older.
"I think the things I thought about when I was 20, I think about differently at 40," Carnahan tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "You have a different set of ideals and personal philosophies that begin to emerge, and I thought it was important to get at these things in an honest manner."
Carnahan explains that he wanted to portray masculinity differently from the way much of Hollywood sees it.
"So much of Hollywood is this kind of overly machismo, nonsensical view of masculinity, which I just don't find honest," Carnahan says. "I think it's this idea of — you know, we're told, well, be a man, be a man. But what does that mean, exactly? Does that mean you can't carry yourself with any fear? That you can't acknowledge that you're scared? You can't acknowledge that 'I'm not sure what's waiting for me beyond this realm?' I think these are all things that played upon me, and I wanted that to play upon these characters."
In one scene, the men sit around a campfire and delve into those very questions about life after death. While Neeson's character, a pragmatist, says he's only concerned with the air in his lungs and the wolves stalking them, another character — played by Dermot Mulroney — says he's relying on his faith to get pull him through.
"We hear, 'Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways,'" Carnahan says. "Well, these guys — some of them — they don't want it to be mysterious. They want to know what's going to happen, and they want his help. They want this idea of a deity that could grant them — 'Can you save me? Will I survive?'"
Neeson's Performance A 'Catharsis'
Carnahan isn't the only person for whom the film is a more personal effort. John Ottway, Neeson's character, is grieving the loss of his wife. Neeson's loss of his own wife, Natasha Richardson, just a few years ago was something Carnahan says he was conscious of in his approach, but wasn't sure could even be avoided.
"We touched on that, and Liam was very forthcoming with the other actors and myself," Carnahan says. "He looked at [the role] as a catharsis. ... Liam was always very open and sincere, and he was able to liberate from his own personal life what he needed to make Ottway's situation work."
What kind of things, Carnahan isn't saying.
"What those things were are exclusively the province of Liam."
At the same time, some moments in the film may be haunting precisely because it's Neeson the actor. In one scene in particular, Ottway has a conversation with God:
"Show me something real. I need it now, not later. Now. Show me and I'll believe in you 'til the day I die, I swear. I'm calling on you."
Carnahan says that scene still hits him on an emotional level because you can hear a great desperation and sadness in Neeson's voice.
"When you have an actor like Liam Neeson, you have to take advantage of his talent and his ability to bring that off and make you believe and give you that great sense of dread and desperation," Carnahan says.
What They Leave Behind
With death facing all the characters in a very real way, they also ponder what memories they will treasure in their final moments, and the minutiae of what they find in their wallets comes to symbolize their lives.
Carnahan says these details were inspired by his own experiences of grief.
"A guy I worked with, a very dear friend of mine, we had a mutual friend and a very young guy. He was 24 at the time, and he passed away rather suddenly and rather dramatically. He just ... had too much to drink one night and walked out of this house, and instead of going left, he went right, and that was the end of it. He wound up being killed by a passing car.
"My friend remembers going to his home, going to his apartment after that and seeing there was still a Led Zeppelin LP on his turntable and still the signs of life and still these little notes he had written to himself," Carnahan says. "And I always thought, it's just so heartbreaking to me, you know, that's the measure in the end."
Paying tribute to that idea, Carnahan insisted that audience see pictures of the actors and their families. The photos, that play at the end of the film, are real, Carnahan says, and that makes for a greater emotional impact on the audience.