dir: Joe Carnahan
Bleak, brutal, beautiful.
But enough about my previous relationship…
The Grey is one of the bleakest things I’ve seen since The Road, which was that horrifying post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy adaptation, which was the bleakest thing I’d read since Blood Meridian, which was the bleakest thing since my previous relationship. Plus, it’s got wolves, just like my previously relationship.
Yes, enough about ruthless predators that won't be satisfied until your bones are scattered, torn limb from limb, strewn across a desolate landscape…
But how could there ever be enough? The Grey is not really the film that it seems to be, at least, the film that they are marketing it as.
Yes, it seems similar to films like Alive (where a Uruguayan rugby team survive a plane crash in the Andes Mountains, get over their squeamishness and learn to love cannibalism), or Flight of the Phoenix (bunch of guys survive a plane crash in the desert, only to face death from the sun and guys on horses with guns). No, this is totally different.
In The Grey, a bunch of guys crash in Alaska, and face harsh conditions and wolves, and struggle to survive in a place where survival is unlikely.
The difference, the profound difference is, this isn't a survival story. It's a story about the struggle itself to survive: what is it, do we all have it in varying amounts, what's the point of it; the usual drill.
Actually, it's a very unusual drill. There is a difference, This flick has variously been described as a macho resurgence in cinema (it's not, it's always been dunderheadedly macho), a celebration of alpha dog masculinity (well, kinda), a recruitment poster for the NRA (bullshit), a celebration of animal cruelty (bullshit), or a flick trumpeting Man's victory over nature (nup, not by a long shot). There’s also a bunch of people saying there’s a strong spiritual component to the flick (there is), and that the flick can be seen as a celebration of faith in the Christian God.
If so, I wonder what holy incense these crazed and hallucinatory dullards are mixing in with their pious milkshakes to achieve such visions, since the flick seems to be the opposite, if nothing else, it’s arguing that God, like Nature, doesn’t give a fuck about us.
At the very least, you can see that there are different arguments and different explications for a flick that looks like it would be a simple stroll through the wilderness.
In other words, it’s anything but.
Ottway (Liam Neeson), is a hunter employed by a mining company to protect employees of that corporation from wolves. He literally sits there with a rifle, shooting wolves just before they lunge at the guys on the pipeline.
We are given clear indications that Ottway is quite depressed. I'm not sure what gives it away: the grim expression on his face; his lack of interaction with the other savages brawling in the company bar; his dour voiceover, which is revealed as a letter he's writing to someone - some woman who we see throughout the film lying on a bed, looking beatific. And then, the last, somewhat unambiguous sign is the scene where he puts his rifle's muzzle into his mouth.
Seems like an odd way to clean a gun, but then, I don't know much about gun maintenance. Whatever he was going to do is interrupted by the lonely, mournful howl of a wolf in the distance.
Bloody wolves. They're his nemesis, but his livelihood as well. And, though he never articulates it verbally, he clearly admires the creatures. Upon shooting one which was trying to kill a worker, he comforts it as it takes its last breathes, which is a strangely touching scene that I didn't understand until the end of the movie, where it is paralleled.
We know he is weary, and desirous of death, but this is nothing new at the beginning of a flick. It's a common trope used in everything from Lethal Weapon to that terrible flick End of Days with Arnie fighting Satan. I'm not making that up, it's something that really happened. It's meant to show how tortured a main character is, but I consider it a lazy short cut and I hate it.
But, with Liam doing it, it's instant poignancy. It's also the case that he genuinely looks utterly destroyed and miserable.
I'm not one to subscribe to the theory that stuff outside of a movie (the recent death of Liam Neeson's wife Miranda Richardson) has that much of an impact on a movie itself. We look for it, as the audience, we like to psychologise and project and deduce, but mostly I suspect it's bullshit.
That being said, it was impossible for me to not think that Liam - Ottway was taking all of this deeply personally.
A cohort of men, including Ottway, are travelling from the extreme wilderness to Anchorage, and their plane very much doesn't make it. It very violently and permanently crashes, killing most of the people on board. If that wasn't bad enough, they are in the middle of nowhere, it's 40 below zero, they've got practically nothing, no shelter and no food. And a large wolf pack is licking its collective chops, thrilled that some takeaway food has crash-landed in their hood.
Ottway brings comfort to the dying before trying to rally the men round, in scenes so intense and heartfelt that they seem out of place, until our preconceptions undergo a major shift. It took me a while for me to realise that the flick was more about ever-present Death, and the different ways people were either accepting it or not, than about Life. And this is never really an ensemble piece, because it's all about our alpha male Ottway. His wilderness and survival skills would seem to give him the edge over the other guys, who obviously are a motley bunch of reprobates and fuck ups, who mostly defer to him because they haven’t got a clue.
One guy challenges him, in a scene that’s paralleled by the wolves chasing them, where some foolish dog challenges the alpha, and is swiftly bested. Well, who do you think can stand against Liam Neeson?
No-one, that’s who.
It's often a criticism of flicks like this that the characters are clichés and cut-outs, ticking certain boxes and such, achieving only a basic level of sketched-outedness before just using them as props. The Grey elides this problem in a strangely effective way. These men don't really know each other, being, by their very natures, rugged individualists who barely give a damn about the people around them at the best of times. And they don't have the luxury of time to get to know each other. They're perpetually harried and exhausted, constantly under siege, and they're barely going to have two seconds to swap anecdotes before something kills them.
And yet they still make an impression, and their time, however long or short, is enough to differentiate one from the other.
What it comes down to is this: their chances of survival are slim, and they have no real way of fighting off the entire wolf pack. And they are in a place that just doesn't seem like humans belong, no matter how determined, or how well equipped they may be. Or how well they teamwork together, or how resourceful they are, or how kind and supportive they are to each other. Or whether they have faith in higher powers, or none at all; there’s no advantage, no leg-up, no short-cut.
None of that would seem to ultimately matter in the face of Nature’s indifference.
This seems like the kind of story we've seen before, and I don't just mean the set up. The wolves could just as easily be the aliens from Aliens, or zombies, or mutant vampires, and our protagonists would be in a similarly shitty position. But that's the difference here. There are so many ways for them to die that the wolves become somewhat existential, like embodiments of Death itself. And it comes to mean something more than that, to the point where it’s about our place in the universe, and what we do about it, in the face of oblivion.
One character comments that he's had enough, he can't go on, can't see any point in going on, and it's not even because of the wolves. When quizzed as to why, he points to the sweep and grandeur of a nearby ice-covered mountain range, almost blue in its frigid beauty, as if to imply: how the fuck do you compete against that?
It was a staggering moment for me, in a flick that has many of them. Despite the fact that the tone is bleak, and deadly serious, there is this almost an irony at work in how they rarely if ever seem to get a break, as situations go from bad to worse with frightening consistency.
And in the end, what can these guys do, what does Ottway do, what can any of us do? Fight, fight as best we can for as long as we can, because it’s the fight that makes us human, that is our own rallying cry in the face of the darkness.
Is it simple, is it complex? I haven’t been able to figure it all out yet, but I have been able to figure out that I deeply loved this film. I don’t know all the reasons why, but there are enough I hope in the review to cover some of it. Liam is… staggering and heartfelt and wounded and impossible not to love in this, because he invests the role with such pathos and feeling, and rage at the unfairness of it all.
I haven’t always enjoyed the films of Joe Carnahan, the last one of his I really liked being Narc a whole age ago, but this is probably the best thing he’s ever done and the best thing he’ll ever do. It’s a really strong flick that will be seen by very few people and liked by even less, but none of that matters to me, because this film spoke deeply to me, and I listened.
9 times Death has such a twisted sense of humour out of 10
“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.” – The Grey