Both Joe Carnahan's The Grey and Asger Leth's Man on a Ledge opened last week during the movie industry "dead zone," a name film scholar David Bordwell gave to the first quarter of the calendar year. During this stretch, lower-profile releases with limited box-office expectations often sneak into theaters for brief runs alongside their Oscar-craving kinfolk. At their worst, these movies slip in and out of the multiplex without a peep. But at their best, these movies are more nervy and creative than most summer blockbusters and autumnal prestige pictures. After seeing Carnahan's and Leth's latest films this weekend, I was left with two questions: First, what made The Grey such a bracing example of this kind of neo-"B" film storytelling? Second, why was Man on a Ledge nothing more than a high-concept fiasco?
Let's start with the actors. The Grey stars Liam Neeson as John Ottway, a tormented man who survives a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness with seven other members of an oil-drilling team. Like Clint Eastwood, Neeson has defied time. He's gotten older, yet thanks to movies like 2008's Taken, he's also transformed himself into a bankable action hero. His two great traits are his bulk and his gentle demeanor: He's capable of assuming the alpha-male role among a pack of surly Hemingway types, but he's also capable of flavoring a line like "You're gonna die; that's what's happening" with something like paternal care. The Grey surrounds him with an able-bodied cast of middle-aged character actors like Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, and Frank Grillo, who give the film an air of solemnity and seriousness. These men aren't playing around.
The titular "man on the ledge" in Leth's film is Avatar's Sam Worthington, who shares Neeson's space-eating screen presence but lacks any corresponding moral force or psychological complexity. Worthington plays an ex-cop who's been wrongfully imprisoned, but for all his outrage and frustration, he feels like he's just playing with the role rather than inhabiting it. This is kind of remarkable: How can you make clinging to the side of a building seem phony? His capable co-stars — Elizabeth Banks, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, and Kyra Sedgwick — never fill the emotional void he creates. For a while, Banks is pleasingly matter-of-fact as she tries to talk him back inside. But the other performers seldom bring any elements of danger or volatility to their roles. They're paid professionals doing risk-free work.
Another key difference between the two films comes from the apparent simplicity of their plots. For example, The Grey focuses stubbornly and pitilessly on how Ottway and his fellow crash survivors are going to survive the wilderness. Carnahan spends the rest of the film whittling down his ideas about man and nature (and about God and faith) until they're as sharp and wounding as spear points. Instead of staying focused on its protagonist's tense situation, though, Man on a Ledge heads in the opposite direction. Leth and screenwriter Pablo F. Fenjves frantically broaden their canvas in an attempt to weave together the heist film, the cop drama, the social-protest picture, and the romantic-comedy caper. Eventually, all the reversals, revelations, complications, and expansions tug the movie in so many different directions that it's torn into little scraps.
But it's not like either movie is a model of realism. No matter how savage the wolves of The Grey are, their threat is not grounded in fact. Wolves simply don't kill people, much less methodically hunt them down like the members of a highly trained lupine assassins' guild. However, if you think of these outsized predators as symbols of the natural world's savagery or what Jack London once memorably described as "the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life," then the film gains strength as a nasty parable about the fragility of human existence. After a while, Carnahan doesn't even need wolves to get his point across. He just lets them howl in the darkness. And when day breaks, he watches his ever-dwindling band of survivors trudge through the ankle-deep snow of Alaska's windy, treacherous vastness.
There's no way to read the ridiculous plot twists and shabby action set pieces of Man on a Ledge as anything other than the desperate flailings of a filmmaker trying to mix-and-match genre conventions. More ridiculous and offensive than these scattershot chase scenes and plot twists are the statements about class envy shoehorned into the film. When the long-haired Occupy Wall Streeter who joins the crowd of passersby and takes an interest in the drama between Banks and Worthington unfolding 21 stories above him spouts some prefab nonsense about the rich getting away scot-free while the poor suffer, it's a gesture, not an emotion. This guy's shouts of "Attica!" aren't rallying cries for a wrongfully accused man; they're a smart-ass allusion to Dog Day Afternoon, a far more volatile account of a big-city standoff.
The most important difference between The Grey and Man on a Ledge comes from the ways in which each film plays with genre expectations. Starting with a truly horrifying plane-crash sequence, The Grey begins with blood and violence but ultimately slows down, growing more pensive, contemplative, and potent as its characters come face to face with their tragic destiny. Man on a Ledge, however, grows more breakneck and goofy until it plummets off its perch and lands in the safety net made from dozens of action-film clichés.
The Grey and Man on a Ledge