Director Joe Carnahan emerged as an up-and-comer with the release of 2002’s “Narc,” (the follow-up to his directorial debut “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane”). The director began his career at the tail end of the “indie heyday” of the 1990s when driven artists really could carve a path to the studios out of the festival circuit with a no-budget film featuring actors with light resumes and zero notoriety.

After a notoriously rocky start in the world of big budget event films (having quit before being fired from “Mission: Impossible III”), Carnahan began to create a name for himself as a helmer of B-to-B+ level light-hearted actioners such as “Smokin’ Aces” and “The A-Team.” With tomorrow’s release of “The Grey,” however, the director will introduce audiences to a new dimension of both his psyche and work, one that might have made an impact on the current Oscar season had it hit theaters when originally anticipated.

The trailer for the film reads as a wolf-punching excursion into the wilderness with cinema’s most treasured ass-kicker: Liam Neeson. But it is, in fact, a mythical and metaphysical exploration of nothing less than death itself. It has the unrelenting raw edge of Carnahan’s sophomore offering coupled with the wisdom and contemplative nature that age and experience brings.

Perhaps in part due to the surprise the film offered (one which will please some, and piss others off), critics have begun to buzz about the shame of “The Grey”’s late-in-the-game “January dumping ground” release. Perhaps Open Road was less inclined to give Carnahan’s first return to his grittier roots a qualifying run for 2011 awards consideration. But the director explained in a recent interview with The Playlist that it was all just a matter of poor timing. If they’d been able to launch in Toronto as originally planned there may have been a qualifying run.

“We wound up six weeks behind because of effects,” Carnahan explained. “Combining that with the fact that Liam was doing ‘Taken 2’ and wouldn’t be available for all the events you have to go to. It’s like an election. You’re running for office. So since we didn’t have those things set, we said let’s just release it when it’s all ready. Honestly, it’s nice to even be mentioned, the idea that people even think it’s awards-worthy. That’s flattering. “

There’s a lot to be said for the choices that Carnahan made as a director, and “The Grey” was in fact born of his passion and psycho-spiritual struggle, but the truth is that the most likely contender for the hunt would have been Neeson for his portrayal of Ottway (the living embodiment of the Alpha male). Frank Grillo delivers a fine performance as Diaz, the film's (human) antagonist (though this is not a simple protagonist/antagonist affair). But Neeson has the good will needed to forge ahead to the front of the field.

Carnahan is unlikely to go directly from being the man behind “The A-Team” to an Oscar contender, but the space of a year may help rather than hurt the film in this case. Both the director and the production were already blessed with one of the clearest examples of a “happy accident” when Neeson expressed interest in the film after his “A-Team” co-star, Bradley Cooper, had to drop out. There is no “The Grey” without a leader we can believe is capable of guiding these men into and beyond the hidden depths of their will, then past that point into the release of said will to something so much wilder, less controlled and larger than they are.

If the film continues to do relatively well critically, and makes a strong showing at the box-office we may see a campaign for “The Grey” unfold at the close of this year. “Open Road has said flat out and sort of scrawled it in blood that they’re going to release the film in October 2012 for a qualifying run,” Carnahan told The Playlist, though it's less about "qualifying" than "reminding." Curtis Hanson's "Wonder Boys" tried a similar tack in 2000 to build on great early word from the film's February release that year, but wasn't able to secure a nomination for Michael Douglas after all (even with the added exposure of the actor's performance in Steven Spderbergh's "Traffic" thrown in).

This weekend’s box office returns will be a good first indication of whether that blood will, in fact, stick to the wall.

"The Grey" opens this Friday, January 27th.

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