“Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”
-A bumper sticker
I really thought 2012 would be the year I’d finally get to see Liam Neeson fight a wolf. The Grey marks the latest in a particular set of movies, movies with retro craftsmanship and giddy knowingness tailored to Neeson’s stone face and unstoppable forward momentum, this time with a cartoonishly elemental set-up—professional hardass in a shawl-collar sweater Liam Neeson leads a dwindling pack of oil workers to safety after a plane crash strands them in a harsh sub-Arctic wilderness, where they are beset by a pack of killer wolves—which strips away everything but creative conflict with a magnificently contrived opponent. All the better for me to wallow around in my moviegoing Id.
Imagine, then, my lizard-brain anticipation when Liam Neeson, alone with the wolves at last, steeled himself to turn and fight, took deep cleansing breaths to prepare his spirit for death, and did that genius bit from the trailer where he fashions brass knuckles with black electrical tape and shattered airplane mini-bottles. And then: face down the alpha wolf, and cut to black. The end.
Now. Plenty of movies end at, rather than after, a moment of crisis: this is sometimes a cop-out or merely clever, but it can also be a leading question which filmmakers put to their audience. When our desire is thwarted, or manipulated, it’s an invitation to consciously articulate our expectations to ourselves, and to see how they sound. Oh, so you want to watch Liam Neeson fight a wolf, do you? How very interesting…
This, frankly, rankles, because mostly I just want to watch Liam Neeson fight a wolf. Since the point has been pressed, yes, I do recognize that this is a fundamentally superficial desire. But then, a lot of man-hours at union scale went into implanting—implanting, not satiating—this desire in my brain. Dude, you’re the one who brought it up. It seems somewhat in bad faith for The Grey’s writer-director Joe Carnahan to interrogate an appetite of his own devising. It’s as if Pavlov kicked his dog outside without supper to make him really think about his saliva.
And when we do think about it, are we actually discovering things we didn’t know? I don’t really want to start in with whipping out our brains to see who’s got the biggest, but hi, I’m Mark Asch, I carry around a stub for A Brighter Summer Day in my wallet, and my desire to watch Liam Neeson fight a wolf is but a single star within one of the many aesthetic constellations I can readily point out to you against the clear night sky of my soul.
What I’m curious now is, where does it come from, this presumption that a productive point is being made by the ending of The Grey?
The Grey is, for much of its running time, as exemplary as you’d hope a movie about Liam Neeson leading a dwindling pack of oil workers to safety in a wilderness beset by killer wolves might be. There’s an eclectic cast, who die with great variety. They die as early warnings, as in a torchlit surprise attack on the first night; as humbling emblems of a fundamental existential arbitrariness, as in the wheezing, weak-hearted man who simply stops breathing under the gradual toll of altitude sickness; at the conclusion of nicely scaled setpieces, as in the man whose glasses precede him to the bottom of a ravine traversed by a makeshift rope; and with a tragic poignancy, as in a drowning lifted directly from Paul Newman’s Sometimes a Great Notion.
So far, so machopoetic. The action film, as we know from reading lots of film criticism, is about man’s will to inscribe meaning into an indifferent world through his deeds. Carnahan begins to make this point explicitly, as his band of bros engage not just in predictably meatheaded bonding over the smell of pussy, but in musings on the masculine spirit and the possibility that a higher power authored their fate. Thus, The Grey, with its blatant premise, is explicitly “about” the stuff left to the subtext of the classical action film. In a year in which more films than just Cabin in the Woods made sport of the way genre movies and genre junkies constantly try to outsmart each other, this sort of self-consciousness is at least natural, even if it’s more reflexive than revelatory.
At the end of the film, though, the spectacle and outcome of the ultimate confrontation is revealed to be ultimately extraneous to the test of mettle which precedes it. The readiness is all. The Grey’s true subject, then, is the critical discourse surrounding the action movie. It has already been about its genre, but in delivering this little why-we-watch lesson it ceases to be of its genre altogether.
And this is the part that makes me want to quote WWII propaganda posters at Joe Carnahan: Is your trip necessary? At the climax of the Raoul Walsh version of The Grey, Errol Flynn would fight a wolf. At the climax of the Howard Hawks version of The Grey, John Wayne would fight a wolf. At the climax of the Don Siegel version of The Grey, Clint Eastwood would fight a wolf.
These movies are not necessarily sillier than The Grey. These movies, or the ones like them, are the subject of the conversation we’ve long been having, about how the true subject of the action film is actually is the man and the will and the indifferent world and whatever. They’re the source of the action-movie discourse Carnahan chooses over action-movie pleasures—as if it was ever a matter of choosing.
And anyway, the pleasures, maybe even the silliness, help keep things in perspective. Maybe after John Wayne fights the wolf, Dean Martin sings a happy-drunk song about it, and maybe Clint Eastwood takes the wolf on a cross-country barnstorming arm-wrestling tour. This is all to the good. In The Grey, Liam Neeson has a poem which he recites to himself as a sort of manly mantra:
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.
Now. Inasmuch these verses are easily pictured tattooed across a bulky trapezius, they seem to accurately render the mindset of a man about to fight a killer wolf with a set of brass knuckles fashioned from black electrical tape and shattered airplane mini-bottles. Though I guess we’ll never know, will we?
But if it’s not that, then what is it? Because it’s not exactly “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” let alone Henry V. “Live and Die on This Day” (which I’m guessing is the name of the poem) is about as lyrical an invocation of the timeless martial virtues as Skyfall is a dramatically resonant portrait of a man numbing the aftershocks of childhood trauma with alcohol, promiscuity, and sadism.
But then again: what are the other points on the grading curve, actually? Skyfall is a useful case in point here, as a movie that appears to have duped itself into believing it’s obligated to fill the cultural space it’s purchased for itself, as if only some really deep depth to go along with the thrills, chills, and spills is necessary to justify its being a syngeristic product-tied-in saturation-marketed internationally rolled-out oxygen-hogging cultural steamroller, quick, hire a guy who’s done a Shakespeare adaptation to write some backstory. Adam Nayman describes another example of this sort of lettuce-on-the-Big-Mac logic in his Reverse Shot’s 11 Offenses entry on Prometheus: “By trying to retroactively justify the immense cultural fallout and industry impact of his superbly executed, pre-CGI B-movie by recasting it and its sequels as nothing less than events in the history of faith, [Ridley] Scott reveals himself as at best a dupe dragged along by a screenwriter in fanboy thrall to a franchise . . .”
It’s this same fallacy of self-containment that worries me about The Grey—this insistence that all the important intellectual pressure-points have been massaged, whether it’s a symptom of capitalism or postmodernism or cultural tunnel vision or sheer self-importance. There has to be something outside the movie! Otherwise we’re just letting the movie about Liam Neeson fighting wolves do all of our thinking for us.
Mark Asch, formerly the film editor of The L Magazine, is currently a Master’s student in Reykjavik.