Liam Neeson and Co. on The Grey: A Welcome Return to Masculine Cinema?

Critics will argue over whether or not Joe Carnahan’s latest, The Grey (currently holding at 76 percent at Rotten Tomatoes), succeeds as the latest nature-as-killer yarn to hit the action genre, but it’s worth taking a closer look at what Joe Carnahan is attempting beyond the survivalist thrills and chills. In the age of the metrosexual, and in an industry inundated with juvenile comedies and mind-numbing blockbusters, what does this Liam Neeson vs. the wolves pics have to say about modern masculinity?

The Grey sees its heroes endure viscera-spilling skirmishes with wolves and ego-driven clashes with one another, but in its quiet moments it explores more existential, even spiritual ground. Chest-puffing toughs like Grillo’s ex-con Diaz are reduced to their true vulnerable selves as the elements strip away the armor of macho posturing, leaving these men feeling their susceptibility as death stalks nearer by the hour.

For Neeson’s Ottway – a prototypical strong and silent hero, with a stoicism and resolve of another era – that vulnerability leads to soul-searching, and ultimately self-resolve: If God can’t help him, he thinks aloud, “Fuck – I’ll do it myself.”

Neeson, director Carnahan, and actors Frank Grillo, James Badge Dale, Dermot Mulroney, and Dallas Roberts discussed the film and its themes in Los Angeles.

Liam Neeson: “The script read like a 19th-century epic poem for me, something like The Ancient Mariner or something. And also [it appealed to] the little boy in myself; I just thought it would be great to be out with a bunch of guys on a cliff face or a rock face and doing manly things.”

Dermot Mulroney: “I loved Jaws and Aliens and… Deliverance. So to me it read like those, I thought I’d like to be in a movie like that once, that’d be amazing. I’ve made a lot of movies that had both men and women in them, a lot of movies that were dominated by the woman’s storyline. And in this case it was a very different experience making the movie and enjoying the movie, when it was completed, because of the fact that there are no women in it… It was like thank God, I get to do a movie with just guys.”

Joe Carnahan: "Mature isn’t the right word; it has the most me in it, I guess – how I think and how I feel, and all my fears, which are considerable, and all my insecurities, which are even more considerable."

Neeson: "When you reach the age of 59 and a half, you do reflect a lot on why you’re on this planet, and what we’re doing, you know? It’s a constant – it is with me, anyway… I wasn’t consciously, but I knew certainly the emotional range of this guy, I could access [it] with a certain amount of ease. And I don’t say that as a brag, it just was a comfortable fit."

James Badge Dale: "We struggle trying to do the best we can, but we continually mess up and the fascinating thing to me about this film was the regret and the pain and you’re faced with this moment where I’m going, I’m leaving, I’m dying. You’re going to die, I’m going to die, it’s over. Wow, look at all the people I’ve hurt. Look at all the times I’ve messed up. What would I do differently? You know? And we’re not perfect. We fall down, but it’s that effort to try to get back up."

Neeson: “He’s an alpha male, you know? He’s a throwback to those directors from the 30s and 40s, I think – Hathaway, Howard Hawks, John Ford. He’s a real throwback to those guys, you know, and I love that in a director. And Katherine Bigelow is the same; she’s the governor. I love having a leader. And especially on a shoot like this, these conditions; you need someone who’s in charge and knows what they’re doing.”

Frank Grillo: “He’s like Hemingway, he’s Papa Bear. It’s crazy. He lives life fast. It’s 100mph all the time.

Neeson: “I think in general it does touch on man’s general fear – I don’t think for this generation, but for my generation and my father’s generation, of difficulty in accessing emotion and then being able to talk about it. I think it certainly touches on that, and these guys, these characters in this film find it very, very hard to relate certainly to themselves and to one another. Which is one of the nice things about the film, that they do, in a way, they do share in a very primitive, basic way.”

Carnahan: "The very basic thesis is, 'As important as it is how you live, it’s equally important how you die.' Whatever you want to take. People say, 'What does the title mean?' That’s it, it’s the grey. It’s the grey area. It’s between life and death, this nebulous thing that you don’t really understand.

Grillo: "What I think that it has to say is that men are as afraid as when they were children. It’s tough being a man. It really is tough being a man. To define yourself and what do you believe in as a man and what are you willing to do to survive and live and protect your family, whatever those things are. How far will I go before I quit? Because we asked ourselves, 'If I was in this situation would I actually be able to do this?' No. I don’t think I would. If my kids were in danger I’m sure I’d be capable of doing some extraordinary things, but I’m not that guy. I’m just not that guy, it’s easier for me to lay down… So I think that it shows people how confusing it is sometimes to be a guy, what is defined, society’s defined to be a man."

Dallas Roberts: "If you take as read the notion that sort of care might fall on the feminine side of all of us, and that love might fall more on that side, then, you know what I mean, then that stuff is very much in play. That stuff is very much a part of these guys’ experience."

Neeson: "We’d talk about – a lot of dirty jokes, we’re a bunch of guys. But occasionally we’d dip into the metaphysics and we became very close – very good friends."

Roberts: "I mean, women were discussed in very, alternatingly respectful and horrific terms. Amongst the privacy of us, the way you would imagine dudes in a locker room. But that’s the problem with discussing modern masculinity, isn’t it, because you’re a moron as soon as you open your mouth and there’s nothing you can do about it. The best thing that you can do is shut up, and I’ve been unable to do that."

Mulroney: "I’ve heard that shutting up is very masculine. I haven’t tried it out yet."

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  • Patrick Hallstein says:

    How masculine is it to count oneself amongst a bunch of anonymous lads that almost seem to LET themselves get ripped apart by wolves (haven't seen the movie, but I'm thinking of Stephanie's comment of them not fighting very well) in a landscape they're a dwarven, pitiful match for? Wasn't metrosexual assertion more masculine than this "he-man" acquiescence and sundering?

    • Jack Knive says:

      Well, when Marky Mark suggested just recently that he might have physically assaulted someone wielding a mere box cutter before he let himself passively accept not only his own death but the inevitable deaths of others, he was greeted as having expressed utter absurdity.

      As if masculinity is so rarefied that to presuppose it in one's self is an insult.

      Masculinity is a burden that has to be accepted. That's what manhood is. You stow your inconsolability and take action despite despair. And when taking action, you are open to the withering critical insult and outrage of those who will not act.

      You risk being called "the bad guy" if you enact a masculine being instead of endlessly presenting your inconsolability while waiting for your surroundings to facilitate your "feelings."

      The phallus has always been a burden in equal measure to its apparent empowerment.

      Apparently, the crown proved too heavy and we all laid it down.

      There is certainly a profound cultural current rushing towards the vacuum left by masculinity in our neutered time.

      Expect many more films made by and for the defeated sons of the era.

  • Patrick Hallstein says:

    You have to be praised for doing what is necessary, regardless of what the crowd think of you, but have to be wary that this isn't just your own need to feel masculine, a non-victum. (Those with the box-cutters probably thought of themselves as refusing to go quietly too -- though I do personally think that with Marky Mark there was something praiseworthy about his claim, built as it was, not just on a need to be masculine -- on weakness, that is -- but out of genuine valuing of self, self-esteem -- on genuine, wonderful, praise-worthy strength.) Some of those who "refuse to take action" may in different circumstances simply be those not partaking in your own very distorted he-man-universe madness -- "the world's coming down, and you're just going about your life as normal, raising your kids, going to your job, enjoying your vacations and buying your toys?! -- cowards!" That is, their being unmoved may not always suggest their cowardice, their neuteredness, but perhaps rather their closer link with sanity. This gets complicated, but one of the things that the left has liked about Obama is that he doesn't react to the affairs of the world as if they are always emergencies calling for immediate, resolved reaction -- unambiguous shows of strength. They have many reservations about him, but for this they often deem him grown-up.

    I like and admired your last line, but I did note that something about it actually appeals. There is romance in it, as if there might be greatness in watching these toppled, desperate, thoroughly humbled sons repeatedly attempt and surely be downed in their efforts to obtain, some anchor for a permanent restoration of lost masculinity. Wave after wave of futile attempt, may awe and eventually, overwhelm -- or at least impress, and finally garner the sympathetic eye and grateful heart.

    • Patrick Hallstein says:

      It occurs to me to mention that if we're supposed to recognize masculinity here, it may be that we're supposed to witness, not something neutered from previous, but something REALER -- less Hollywood, enacted by the kinds of unremarkable, undistinguished, but still resolved men, perhaps not so different from the actors portraying them. There's a current going around now that laughs at Hollywood dance and inflation, and applauds the muddened, even somewhat defeated men, who know what "it's" really like. Comes to mind strongly in Captain America, and that ape movie.