This image, and what it represents not only to a movie but to the post-Taken culture in general, is the reason people were excited for this movie.
Warning: There will be spoilers.
The Grey is a total Trojan horse. I’m going to tell you that no, you’ll never see Liam Neeson actually fight a wolf in this movie with his broken-bottle knuckleduster and taped-to-hand combat knife. The film ends with the very imagery that plowed into the collective imagination like Neeson’s nose via headbutt. It ends with the sure knowledge that yes, Neeson’s Ottway is going to fight the Alpha Wolf that has led a savage series of attacks against him and his fellow survivors, attacks which cost them all their lives. It ends perfectly, with Neeson reciting the poem his drunken Irish dad wrote, the poem that I used to entitle this review.
A problem with this movie is that it contains the baggage of expectation derived from the marketing. You’re waiting the whole movie to see Neeson fight wolves. In the end, there’s very little wolf fighting even when the survivors are at near full strength and even armed with shotgun spears (I shit you not). By the time you get to this ending, which only idiots not paying attention could ever find unsatisfying, you’ll have noticed that you’ve been watching a truly great film and the best Man vs. Wild entry since The Edge. Not only that but The Grey spends a significant amount of time meditating on manhood, both the blustery posturing that many confuse with masculinity as well as the deep core of self-reliance and connection to the elemental forces of our world which might more positively define the aspirations of my gender.
There are plenty of movies where the environment is a “character”. The unforgiving landscape of Alaska as presented in this film does that job effectively. In fact, it’s familiar to people from this part of Canada where endless snow and howling wind are seasonal givens. That familiarity generates extra sympathy for the plight of these characters.
It’s clear from the trailer what the set-up is here. A group of drillers, all rough men in one way or another, is on a plane back to civilization when it goes down somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness. The survivors are guided by Ottway, a haunted and empty man who happens to have the job of sniping wolves who dare to attack the laborers. Through flashbacks, we learn that Ottway is reeling from some kind of lost love, the details of which are clear enough but develop slowly through poetic and brief scenes that feature some startling and excellent transitions.
At its heart, The Grey is a movie about a group of men. Who they are, what they are, and how they’ll pass out of this life. Every member of the cast is solid with Neeson anchoring it all with a powerful performance. There are people talking awards buzz for Neeson in this, a January film that everyone assumed would be Taken in Alaska… and it is completely deserved. Not that the other guys don’t pull their weight. The stand-outs are Hendrik (Dallas Roberts), Talget (Dermot Mulroney) and especially Diaz (Frank Grillo). At first it seems like Joe Carnahan (write and director and in top form here) sketches these characters out with an emphasis on brevity (so that the story can move, presumably) but wisely doesn’t leave it at that. All the characters that don’t die right away after the plane crash are given the chance to evolve into people we care about. This is why Diaz is such a great character whose role is largely to tell us a lot about who Ottway (Neeson) is. In his own right, Diaz gets the best arc in the film going from that insufferable cocky loudmouth who masks fear with bravado (and Ottway awesomely calls him out on this) only to eventually let this go and become a functional part of the group. His death scene is a marvel in its close flirtation with jettisoning audience respect, let alone enjoyment, since the guy simply gives up. The film actually grinds to a halt for a moment of respite and re-evaluation as Hendrick and Ottway half-heartedly try to convince Diaz to keep going. When he drops the barrier of last name identification which feels like a true element of labor camps and men like these, the specter of death and the futility of just giving up wash away and a kind of dignity is achieved. Coupled with the profound mountainous vista which Diaz proclaims as “all for me”, the scene is transcendent in a way that summarizes the achievement of this film.
The Grey also develops a parallel between the dangerous man-hunting wolves and the men trying to survive them. Literally moments after Ottway explains to the men that the sounds they’re hearing signify the Alpha putting down a challenger, Diaz forces the tension rising between him and Ottway to the fore and Ottway is forced to put him down too. Unlike the wolves, though, Ottway and his companions are capable of uniquely human transcendence of the demands of their environment. This is relevant because it contrasts with the harsh and ruthless nature of the wasteland they find themselves in and the wolves that stalk them. In dealing with death, Ottway is sensitive and practically clerical rather than cold and calculated. The scene where he comforts one of the drillers as he bleeds out in the crashed plane is an early indication that The Grey is something special. In dealing with Diaz, Ottway binds him to the group by showing magnanimity after kicking the crap out of him. These finer things are the finer things in us, potentially in men (not exclusively but especially here), and represent the value of civilization.
An interesting thread in the movie that I definitely have to spend time on is it’s attitude toward God and religion. Various characters make religious noises, spend a little time talking about faith or the rightness or wrongness of leaving bodies without saying “words”. Ottway talks about wishing he could believe, but seeing only the “breath in his lungs” and the here and now. This is how the scene ends, with that rejection of afterlife in favor of what’s left of life, what Diaz calls “the fight”, for these guys. That hangs over the rest of the movie until, at the end of his rope, Ottway calls out to God and receives no response. So he picks himself up and says “I’ll do it myself” and that is the point where potentially the most pointed theme of the film crystallizes. I take this as The Grey saying “fuck you” to God and embracing the gritty reality of the struggle between life and death; the here and now. It’s fatalistic but also pure and elemental in a way that, once again, seems to represent a boilerplate sense of masculinity.
There may, in spite of my earlier points, a sense of fate running through this movie and I’m interested in that though it may not coalesce substantially in the film. I entertain this because Ottway ends up right in the one spot he and his men are trying to get away from: the den of the wolves that he figures are hunting and killing them to protect it.
A relatively low budget movie, the effects work in The Grey is exceptional. The wolves, a combination of CG and animatronics from what I’ve read, are an elusive and menacing adversary. The Alpha is a big black wolf, sort of an unlikely looking creature and the one most fully seen. I think that Carnahan might have been banking on a little creative license with this one, representing the animal in a way that reflects the sense of it that the audience (and characters) have by the point where its seen. And that’s fine since we only see the wolf for a second before the challenge is delivered and Neeson starts taping sharp objects to his fucking fists.
A lot of people have commented on the great sound, too. You can always hear what everybody is saying, even over the howling wind and the omni-present howling and snarling of the wolves. The film also possesses a great score by Marc Streitenfeld. It punctuates many scenes but remains in the background, never obtrusive, until it finally climaxes as Ottway looks over the wallets he has collected from all the dead men, especially the ones who survived and died since the crash. This is his memorial to them, a series of pictures of them in happier times and a sign that they lived and had more in their lives than Alaska, work, and death by wolf pack. All except Diaz, who finally finds a measure of that in his final moments. It’s a poignant, moving scene that underlines the removal of God from the equation. Neeson’s expressiveness, the final acknowledgement of what it was that cast him out in this wilderness in the first place (his wife died, she didn’t merely leave him), and the laying out of the wallets is better than any half-hearted prayer or appeal to a beautiful life beyond this one.
And that’s where I’m going to leave this. It’s a wonderful movie and it goes way beyond the marketing to be something truly special which is rare in this world. The ending will disappoint some, the low action quotient (even I expected more effort to be made in actually making good on Ottway’s determination to kill some wolves and even the odds) will disappoint more. That doesn’t matter, though, because those things are not what this movie is and to refuse to see it as it is due to an exciting but somewhat misleading trailer is just wrong.
At the risk of undermining everything I just said, here’s another shot of Liam Neeson about to fuckpunch a wolf with alcoholism in its purest form. This is the most Irish thing I’ve ever seen and it is awesome, whatever the movie ended up being.