Monday, February 6, 2012

The Grey

In a film season usually devoid of quality new releases, The Grey is a breath of fresh air. Well, maybe not as refreshing as that. This is about as grim and grisly as they come, but it might not be what the trailers lead one to believe. If you approach this film as a Liam Neeson action flick ("it's like Taken, but with wolves") then you may miss its meditative tone and spiritual insights.

The Grey centers on Ottway (Liam Neeson), a broken and hardened man living at the end of the world in northern Alaska. He works for an oil company as a sniper, defending the pipeline workers against the wolves who try attacking the unsuspecting men. This sort of profession attracts a strange community of men--former criminals, men desperate for money, the ones trying to escape from the rest of the world. They all find themselves isolated in the bleakness of the Alaskan outpost. Ottway is no exception. He is running from the pain of a past love, revealed in affecting flashbacks. His desire for escape leads him to the brink of suicide at the outset of the film, only to be interrupted by the howl of a wolf.

Ottway and a group of oil workers are relaxing on a plane bound for Anchorage when they experience a nightmare: the plane crashes. It is one of the most intense plane crash scenes I've witnessed on a film. Filmmaker Joe Carnahan makes you feel like you're in the seat next to Ottway, spinning the perspective around in frantic glances as the plane is torn apart. Ottway wakes up in the freezing aftermath, alone in the snowy wilderness. A small band of survivors huddle together in the wreckage to keep warm. These characters are unlike ones you've seen in similar films. These are characters, not caricatures. They are foul-mouthed and frightened, but they are authentic individuals with stories to tell.

The men quickly find themselves hunted by a pack of vicious wolves. They are aggressive and uncaring about the men's stories and families as they attack and kill in brutal fashion. Is this how wolves really behave? Will they actually hunt a large group of human beings, not to eat them, but simply to defend their territory? I'm not sure. But they prove to be a terrifying foe to the group of survivors. This is man-versus-wild, and the wild appears to be winning.

While any other action film would follow the formulaic procedure of having the wolves kill off the men one by one in increasingly gruesome ways, The Grey chooses to take a more philosophical approach. (Though, admittedly, this one-by-one killing does actually occur). Ottway becomes the natural leader of the group--the alpha male, if you will--while struggling to overcome his personal demons of despair and grief. How does one lead a group to survival when one was attempting suicide the day before? What motivates a man like that? Perhaps his faith? A campfire conversation between four of the men reveal contrasting views on faith and God, with Ottway firmly in the camp that God is a fairytale. What's real is what is happening right before them, Ottway surmises. When death comes, we simply slip into darkness. Other men disagree, finding hope in their faith and choosing to believe that God is with them, even in the valley of the shadow of death.

Thus, The Grey might be less of a description of Alaska's icy terrain and more about the ambiguity of God's intervention in tragic circumstances. When we are at the end of our rope (literally; in one scene, the men must traverse a cliff using a makeshift rope, which sent my scared-of-heights nerves into a frenzy), does God come through? The Grey seems to offer little hope, presenting a fairly nihilistic viewpoint about the death and the indifference of nature. Wolves and wilderness don't much care whether you had a family or if you were a good person in this life; they'll snuff that life all the same.

As more lives are lost to the brutal attacks from the wolves, Ottway is forced to his knees, screaming out to God and cursing Him for His seeming lack of empathy and intervention. As he pours out his lament into the grey sky, nothing happens. No magical sign of hope; no burning bush moment where God speaks. "F**k it. I'll do it myself," resolves Ottway. This crass-yet-honest response leads to The Grey's gripping climax, a final confrontation between man and nature. Is God watching Ottway in the background. Is He quietly leading him through the valleys? Does Ottway need to be fully presented with the possibility of his own death to reignite his desire for life? Neeson is perfect as Ottway, keeping a steady balance between honest vulnerability and a grizzled toughness. He is the man who both openly admits his own fears and threatens to beat the tar out of anyone who shows disrespect. He is masculine in the best sense; he is both tender and strong, capable and willing to take action when the situation calls for it.

While the two films could not be more different, The Tree of Life and The Grey both wrestle with the tension between nature and grace. While nature is embodied in the strict rigidity of Brad Pitt's fatherly role in Life, it is more literally embodied in a pack of wolves in The Grey. Neither film offers a clear-cut answer, but we can recognize a theme: survival in this life only comes when one experiences a bit of grace in the midst of toil and suffering. The Grey is a solid film wrought with despair, but sit through the final end credits for that glimmer of hope The Grey offers.


  1. I love this! i went and say the movie Saturday night. I thought it was amazing! I had some of t he same thoughts you wrote about. But I didn't stay until after the credits like an idiot.

  2. I'll have to check it out. I recently watched To Save A Life, which I saw on your 'movie list' a while ago and absolutely loved it.