Produced by 1984 Private Defense Contractors in association with Liddell Entertainment
Directed by Joe Carnahan
Script by Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers from Jeffers’ story
Distributed by Open Road Films
We tell one another stories to help us face death, knowing the stalker to be ever at our heels.
Not that all narratives end with death, but can you think of a worthwhile story in which mortality doesn’t haunt the pages—or in the case of film, the frames—if only from a distance?
Some stories are more monomaniacal about this stalking than others. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” comes to mind. Its plot concerns a nameless man who presumes to be self-sufficient enough to take on the Alaskan wilderness alone, until nature in the form of 50-below temperatures closes in on him remorselessly.
Director Joe Carnahan’s The Grey shares London’s fatalism. It’s based on a story by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers in which eight or nine plane-crash survivors find themselves exposed to the elements on a stretch of forsaken Alaskan tundra. (What with storms and scattered wreckage, I couldn’t be sure of the exact number.) They’re members of an oil-drilling team who had been flying to Anchorage when they went down. As they try to reach safety, they find themselves dogged, so to speak, by a wolf pack in subzero weather. One among them has some experience with wolves and becomes their default leader. He’s Liam Neeson playing John Ottway, a rifle-toting Irish giant. As a security officer, Ottway’s specialty has been shooting wolves whenever they come too close to the workers’ encampment. Unfortunately, he seems to have lost his rifle in the crash, and he has only his knowledge of wolf behavior to deal with the pursuing pack.
The plot quickly establishes a parallel between the men and the wolves. Each group has an alpha male tasked with outwitting its enemy—Ottway among the men, and a soot-colored wolf, who looks almost as fierce as Ottway, among the pack. Once this premise is established, the hunt is on, wolf against man and man against wolf, with first blood going to the wolves, who pick off two straggling survivors within hours of the crash. Understandably rattled, the men ask Ottway what they can do to protect themselves. Borrowing what has been the wolves’ strategy in hunting them, Ottway replies, “Kill them one at a time,” with a stoic growl worthy of a self-respecting pack leader.
Instructed by Ottway, the men take their first stand. Armed with homemade spears fashioned from saplings, they stave off an attack and kill one of the wolves, which they then roast and eat, confirming in blood the parallel between the species.
This scene has raised the hackles of the literal-minded puritans at PETA and other animal-rights groups. They’re infuriated that the film depicts wolves as predators. Granted, wolves rarely attack humans; they do nevertheless hunt other prey in packs for their meat. But I suspect the graver offense for the PETA folk is showing mere men dining on wolf. The prey turned predator? Monstrous! These complaints seem silly to me. For one thing, the film’s wolves play their roles mostly courtesy of animatronics and CGI, with a few live ones in distant shots. Neither man nor beast had to suffer during the shoot. It’s true that for the purpose of putting his actors in the proper mood, Carnahan had those willing to do so chew on some nonanimatronic wolf meat acquired from a local trapper. As you would imagine, the provenance of the wolf ribs has not appeased the zealots. They’re equally unmoved by literary arguments. It doesn’t matter to them that Carnahan’s purpose was to establish a sort of grisly mortal communion between the men and the wolves.
Carnahan is not a subtle director. He blazons his theme in blood again and again. The wolf pack embodies the mortality that constantly pursues us, waiting for the chance to take us down—our common fate made visible, immediate, and relentless.
But Carnahan doesn’t wait for his wolves to show up, snapping their jaws at the frightened men, to establish his theme. In an early scene just after the plane goes down, Ottway finds a badly injured man still strapped into his airline seat in the wreckage. As Ottway tries to make him comfortable, repositioning his traumatized body and zipping up his parka against the cold, the fellow looks up in alarm. “What’s happening to me?” he demands.
The other survivors look on in grave silence. But not Ottway. “You’re going to die,” he says with unnerving directness. And then for consolation he adds, “You’ll feel warm at the end. Just let it slide over you.” This scene has a power rare in American movies. Hollywood actors are conventionally scripted to respond to a dying character by telling him with repeated insistence that everything’s going to be all right, if only he doesn’t give up. Not in this movie. Death, it assures us, will come sooner or later—in this case, sooner—with all its insidious inevitableness. When you can’t fight it off any longer, the best response is to resign yourself calmly to its arrival. This sounds slightly un-American in a movie theater.
Carnahan has something more in mind than a wilderness survival story. When we first meet Ottway, he’s in the company cafeteria grousing to himself in voice-over that he’s wound up at the end of the world among losers like himself, men unfit to live in civilization. He then goes outside and puts his rifle in his mouth preparatory to blowing out his brains. Before he does, however, he hears a wolf howling in the distance, as if it were calling him to duty. After he finds and shoots it, he bends over its dead body, stroking its fur. Ottway is a tough man, but there’s a strain of rueful melancholy in him that enables him to empathize with a creature who is supposed to be his enemy. Where does his empathy come from? Is it his age? (Even with dyed hair, Neeson can’t disguise his 59 years.) Is it the inevitable disappointments and losses that have come with the years? We’re given a partial answer with repeated scenes of a woman whom Ottway recalls in memory. She’s shown lying next to him in bed. “Why did you have to leave?” he asks this phantom, to which she responds, “Don’t be afraid.” Only at the narrative’s conclusion do we learn who she is and what caused their separation. We, nevertheless, sense from her first appearance that she’s been the presence in his life that enabled him to become something more than a roughneck. She’s the person who invested him with genuine human dimension.
The Grey is not a great film. Carnahan’s attempt, in the film’s last act, to turn Ottway into an existential hero, a forlorn man in a godless universe, seemed to me clumsy and unconvincing. Would such a man really look up at the heavens and bellow for help from an Almighty Being he can’t quite believe in? But Carnahan deserves kudos for at least raising the question of God.
And then there’s the poem that Ottway’s father wrote many years before, and which he quotes several times during the narrative, most effectively at the conclusion. I take it to be Carnahan’s attempt at an existentialist’s anthem.
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.
To live fully, these simple lines suggest, requires that we look death in the face daily. Seems a reasonable stance to take whenever the wind or the wolves are howling. And maybe especially when they’re not.