If you’ve seen the trailers for director Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” then you probably expect a thrill-a-minute action adventure survival-themed romp. It really doesn’t look like anything terribly original, but does look like a lot of fun. We’ve seen movies like this before (“The Edge” comes to mind) and have certain expectations. Well, if you go into “The Grey” expecting to see the illusion presented in the ads then you will likely be sorely disappointed.
“The Grey” is a contemplative examination of life and death, deeply rooted in the philosophies of both, teetering on the edge of faith, reason, and dumb luck. It’s a metaphoric and literal journey of men being “chased by wolves,” that can easily lead you to believe that the wolves don’t exist at all. Bear with me and I’ll explain.
Liam Neeson stars as Ottway, an Irish-born hunter working at an oil pipeline in Alaska. His job is to ward off any animals that attempt to attack anyone working on the pipes. I’m guessing such a job may exist, but don’t know for sure as I’ve never heard of it from anyone who works on the North Slope (which seems to be what they’re representing here) in Alaska.
Neeson’s Ottway is bleak, lost, and sad, his eyes spelling out the loss of hope. The film lets you know early on that he has nothing to live for, but you’re not quite sure why. After loading onto a plane to head back to Anchorage, Neeson and a number of workers settle in for a cold flight. All of the characters are rugged and questionable, Neeson equating them to lowlifes and convicts. They come off pretty close to that description, but not entirely unlikable. They seem like rough men who have lived rough lives, trying to do the best with what they have, even if it’s freezing their balls off in Northern Alaska.
The plane is suddenly jolted by bad weather and a resulting brutal mid-air break up and eventual crash ensues. We’ve seen plenty of plane crashes caught on film and I won’t say this is the definitive one, but it reeks of harrowing fear. It’s easy to place yourself on that plane and feel the horror that you would expect. What director Joe Carnahan accomplishes in many ways beyond this scene is the use of sound effects to tell his story.
There aren’t any noticeable big-budget effects in “The Grey” and there doesn’t need to be. Carnahan shows two great strengths in putting the film together: restraint and ingenuity. He knows when a sound effect is enough and when to use it for the best result. Weather it be a plane being ripped apart, wolves howling in the distance, or branches breaking in the distance, Carnahan masterfully uses the sounds of the environment to help tell his story.
As the few remaining survivors pull together amidst the wreckage they quickly discover that they are not alone. The wolves appear quickly and begin feeding on the dead. At first, their appearance is regarded as a suspicious occurrence rather than a genuine threat, but that soon changes.
Neeson’s Ottway instantly begins to take the reigns of the situation, directing and leading the men to build a fire, gather materials, etc. He’s a natural leader and embodies a strength that most men would be drawn to in a situation like that.
And so, the parallels begin. Although the wolves don’t take on a massive amount of personality, the basic paradigm of their lifestyle is introduced, as wolf packs are controlled by an Alpha male, the leader. Much like Neeson’s Ottway becomes the “Alpha” of his “pack.” Herein lies the metaphoric hints of the film, where you start to suspect that maybe the wolves are merely a representation of the parallel struggle of the men rather than an actual force of nature.
The Alpha wolf fights another wolf off-screen, achieving his dominance in the face of rebellion, just as Neeson deals with the same thing with one of the members of his “pack.” The wolves, like the ghosts of these men’s pasts,’ follow along with every step, striking when least expected, haunting them to the very end.
Survival, which is that place between life and death, is the central focus, but it’s peppered with the philosophical struggle of faith vs. no faith. What does it mean to know life or death in the struggle to survive? To that end, the film touches on the fundamental acceptance of death. This is dark territory, all the way, and I’d be lying if I said that “The Grey” offered anything in the way of “light” or “hope.” It doesn’t.
“The Grey” is a picture of man at his lowest; cold, separated, hungry, and afraid. When a man is feeling all of these at once you can only imagine what he’ll do to remedy it. And if he chooses to do nothing, he’ll surely die.
It may sound like I’m reading too much into it or getting way too philosophical about the film, but I’m not; these are the ideas that the film presents. This isn’t a movie about a bunch of stranded bad asses fighting off wolves to stay alive. This is a movie that lives and breathes in metaphor. The fight is all internal, and handled differently by each individual. No two men make the same choice or have the same outcome other than the cold darkness of death, and some of them have no choice at all.
There is a scene where all of the men are sitting around a fire engaging in some back and forth between the men and the wolves. This is another scene where Carnahan shows his deftness of touch when utilizing very simple principles to convey a message. The men and wolves howl back at each other and all we hear is the sound of brush crashing and pitters of movement as the wolves encircle the men. We never SEE a wolf during this scene (except for the one they kill and eat), but we HEAR plenty.
Sitting in the dark of the theater you can’t help but feel that the wolves are all around you as well. Carnahan employs another technique, used throughout the film of showing the warm breath in the cold air. Not only do we see this in the humans, but also with the wolves. Peering over a high gorge, the men hear the wolves, but don’t see them. Until a raucous howl send a plume of the wolf’s breath into the night air. Very cool indeed. I’m sure it saved Carnahan a lot of headache to do things that way as it couldn’t have been easy to use real wolves even when they did.
The men continue to press on, even as their ranks dwindle from either the wolves, sickness, etc. We learn the most about each character as they share snippets from their lives while sitting around the fire. It’s the most we learn, but if you think about it, it’s the most profound thing that comes to their minds while in the face of certain death. Although, not all of them are given the proper due in this department, Dermot Mulroney’s character, who talks about his daughter draping her long hair over his face and the payoff to that story is an emotionally moving moment. Besides Neeson, Mulroney is the only other character to get that level of depth in terms of backstory.
As the film progresses you find yourself wanting certain characters to live (or die), even though the film has already set the stage that people, good and bad, are going to die horrible deaths. Frank Grillo (recently seen as the trainer in “Warrior”) is the stereotypical “asshole” who fights against the group the whole time, even as he travels with them. He comes off annoying at first, but warms to the group over time and has a pretty intense scene towards the end. I was impressed with Grillo and hope that between this and “Warrior” we’ll see more of him in future roles. He’s got great presence.
There are constant flashbacks, especially for Neeson’s character, where he is laying next to his wife in a brightly lit room, the two of them staring at one another in silence, until she is ripped away violently. It repeats throughout the film, in a not so subtle gesture to imply that she is “ripped” from his life. Neeson’s internal struggle with this is the main cause of the suffering in his life; wolves are secondary. Not every character is as conflicted as Neeson’s, but they all have their own internal battles being fought.
By the time the film reaches its conclusion…wait. I’m gonna stop you right there. It’s rare that I give a SPOILER warning (which I just did, hence the world “spoiler” in all caps), but feel compelled to do so here. So, if you wish to remain blind to the finale of “The Grey” then avert your eyes. In order to truly get into the overall film, I’ve got to discuss it’s ending. It will make or break the film for most audiences. Cool?
Still with me?
Okay, back to it then. Neeson, the sole survivor by the end of the film has wandered into the one place they were all trying to avoid; the wolf’s den. In contrast to their internal struggle, it’s a metaphor for having to confront your demons (i.e. the wolves) rather than running from them. It’s here that Neeson’s Ottway makes peace with his fate. He accepts that he is going to die, but that he will die fighting, which corresponds with a poem written by his father that talks about just that. The poem, which symbolizes the struggle of the entire film, goes like this:
“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.”
As Neeson’s Ottway sits in the den, realizing exactly where he is, the poem washes over him on repeat. He knows what he must do. He prepares to fight as the wolves surround him, duct taping a knife in one hand and broken bottles on the other. It’s the moment in the trailer that makes you want to see the movie. You want to see what kind of damage he’s gonna do with those weapons. And, just as Neeson springs into action…
…cut to black, roll credits.
So, for those that are expecting a battle of epic proportions…well, you’re not gonna get it. There is definitely an INTERNAL battle of epic proportions, but the external one is lost to us. However, if you stay for the end credits you will see a heaving wolf, injured and lying on the ground, Neeson’s Ottway resting on top of him. It suggests that Ottway won the fight, but nothing more. Perhaps that’s enough satisfaction for you, perhaps not.
I was torn with the ending. While perfectly fitting, I wish I’d never seen a trailer for the film so that the pinnacle “badass” moment of Neeson tapping down weaponry and ready to do battle never comes, I wouldn’t have been disappointed. And I am. I would like to have seen the fight. Not so much because I need an “action fix,” but because it would’ve been a more fitting culmination to the struggle and final battle. I don’t need to be force fed a happy/sad ending. I just want to see a fitting ending that does the complete story justice. With “The Grey” I feel that it’s almost too ambiguous for its own good. It’s exceptionally entertaining and emotional, but almost overly so. It’s wonderfully atmospheric with great performances from all involved. But the payoff isn’t there, at least not in terms of the way the film was marketed.
Personally, I could sympathize with anyone who feels cheated by this cut-to-black ending, but I can also see how people will genuinely appreciate it. It’s going to be up to each individual, obviously, and it’s a rare occurrence where I can respect both sides of the coin. I’m still torn and it may take another viewing to get a grip on my perspective. There’s no denying the artistry in the film, however, and “The Grey” provides an unconventional survival tale that is seeped in the philosophy of life and death. “The Grey” is a parable tale and like many parables, it is riddled with questions, answers, and introspective ideas. It’s worth watching and is best viewed with someone else who you can bounce your thoughts off of afterwards. It’s definitely a “discussion” movie, which perhaps is its greatest strength. Unfortunately, it’s greatest weakness is the divide it causes amongst viewers.