Director Joe Carnahan’s The Grey started a bidding war just last month, with Open Road Films emerging as the victor.

The wilderness thriller has now been slated for theatrical release in January of 2012. However, it may actually be given a very limited release a month earlier, so as to allow Liam Neeson to possibly snag an Oscar nod for his much buzzed-about lead performance in the film.

Carnahan collaborated with Death Sentence screenwriter Ian MacKenzie Jeffers on The Grey, an action/adventure survival tale that’s more of a streamlined (re: low-budget and gritty) thriller along the lines of the director’s Smokin’ Aces and Narc than his A-Team movie.

Here is the lowdown on Carnahan’s The Grey, from the official studio press release:

In ‘The Grey’, Liam Neeson leads an unruly group of oil-rig roughnecks when their plane crashes into the remote Alaskan wilderness. Battling mortal injuries and merciless weather, the survivors have only a few days to escape the icy elements – and a vicious pack of rogue wolves on the hunt – before their time runs out.

‘The Grey’ also features Frank Grillo (upcoming Warrior and Lay The Favorite), Dermot Mulroney (Burn After Reading, About Schmidt), Dallas Roberts (The Good Wife, 3:10 To Yuma), Joe Anderson (Across The Universe, upcoming ABC series The River), James Badge Dale (upcoming World War Z, The Conspirator, HBO’s The Pacific), Nonso Anozie (upcoming Conan The Barbarian, Atonement, RocknRolla).

According to Deadline, most of the buyers who previewed some 30 minutes of footage from The Grey are describing Neeson’s lead turn as pure “Oscar bait.” The actor previously received an Academy Award nomination for his turn in Schindler’s List, but has yet to actually win the coveted prize. Hence why The Grey may hit just a handful of theaters before the year is out, so that Neeson has a fighting chance of landing an acting nod (and maybe more).

Carnahan and Neeson on the set of 'The A-Team'

Over the last decade, Neeson has become somewhat of a go-to action star in Hollywood. While his days as a physically-intimidating force to be reckoned with go back as far as 1995, with Rob Roy, Neeson really came into his own as a badass onscreen after his turns in Batman Begins and (most notably) Taken. By the sound of it, his role in The Grey allows Neeson to show off more of his dramatic acting chops, while still being the sort of rugged hero that moviegoers love to watch him play. In other words, it’s the sort of performance that could very well get the actor attention during awards season.

The Grey is officially set to begin a wide theatrical release on January 27th, 2012. We’ll let you know if that changes.

Source: Open Road Films, Deadline