Every few weeks, an old friend and I chat for an hour or two on the phone, and without exception, at some point the conversation shifts to movies. When we spoke two days ago, the topic somehow meandered over to Gareth Evans’ 2011 film, The Raid. It’s an Indonesian film (and one of the best action films I’ve ever seen), and my buddy mentioned there’s a US remake in the works, to be directed by Joe Carnahan.
“I know that name,” I said.
“Oh yeah, he directed some episodes of Blacklist. And also The Grey.”
Well, there it was. That’s how I knew the name. The Grey.
The Grey came out in the winter of 2011, and according to my ticket stub I saw it on Wednesday, February 2nd. I remember why.
I can tolerate winter in Pittsburgh until the day after New Year’s. On January 2nd – exactly – I’m ready for it to end. Unfortunately Pittsburgh’s winter weather lasts about five months – well into April sometimes – so there’s no getting rid of it that fast. By February 2nd I was thoroughly sick of the cold and dark, and everyone I worked with – both students and teachers – felt the same. We were all kind of crabby and irritable, sick of scraping car windshields, the powdery snow that gets sucked into your car when you open the door (leaving your ass wet for an hour after you sit on it), colds, flus, and the general feeling of cabin fever that eventually descends on the entire state. I also suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, so that had kicked in big-time and wasn’t doing me any favors either.
So out of the blue, following a mind-numbing hour spent grading Scarlet Letter quizzes, I decided, on impulse, to jump in my car and go see The Grey. It would give me a couple hours of escapism, hopefully lift me out of my funk, and I’d be home by midnight (I’m a night owl, so no harm there).
I chose The Grey for one reason. A few years earlier, in 2008, the first Taken movie was released. And, of course, everyone likes Taken…There’s nothing quite like spending two hours watching Liam Neeson beat, stab, and shoot the living shit out of people who are asking for it. The whole thing is escapism at its finest: fluffy, gratuitous, and easy to follow. And in its trailers, The Grey was presented as a variation of that film: Liam Neeson attacking man-eating wolves, vowing to take them out “one by one” as he and a small band of men attempt to escape the Alaskan wilderness following a plane crash. The trailer was full of fast cuts, emphasizing action, adventure, and violence.
Since it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, I went alone. I drove the 17 miles to the theater just as darkness was starting to fall, fortified myself with popcorn, took a seat in the back of the theater, and settled in. (I’ve never had a problem going to movies — or just about anywhere else — by myself now and then. I think there’s something to be said for feeling comfortable on your own.)
Anyway, the movie started…and less than ten minutes in, I began to wonder what, exactly, I was watching. Neeson’s character, John Ottoway, a marksman protecting oil workers from wolves in Alaska, finishes writing a letter to his apparently estranged wife, staggers out of a bar and into a snowy field, and puts a rifle in his mouth. The howl of a wolf stops him, however, and the following day his plane, filled with fellow workers, crashes in the Alaskan tundra, leaving only a handful of them alive. The man who was just seconds away from ending his own life the previous day now assumes a leadership role among the small group of survivors.
Thus begins one of the most harrowing dramas I’ve ever seen. It is not an action movie…there is occasional action, but it is of secondary importance, often muted, and never truly glorified. And it certainly isn’t fluffy or even slightly gratuitous. The trailer, obviously constructed to cash in on Taken’s success, no doubt purposefully misrepresented the film. Instead of Neeson and his band of survivors taking on and successfully battling a pack of wolves, Aliens-style, we are treated to a striking, profound, and deeply unsettling depiction of what happens when we have no choice but to look death in the face, knowing that its shark-eyed stare will not blink first. In the entire film, only one wolf is killed…an apparent turning point for the survivors that fills them with temporary hope, only for that hope to then be brutally, systematically stripped away again.
These are men in extremis: starving, lost, freezing, wounded, and hunted. They have accidentally encroached on a wolf pack’s territory, and are desperately trying to move beyond it, where they would still have to face great hardship, but perhaps not the certain, violent deaths the wolves begin to dole out.
They fail. Immediately following the crash, when Ottoway helps a mortally-wounded man face his own death by matter-of-factly informing him that he is going to die, then guiding his thoughts toward peace as he bleeds out, The Grey begins an examination not of human ingenuity (although that is certainly on display at times) and triumph over the natural world, but of the meaning we find (or don’t find) in our lives as we face challenges that may well be insurmountable.
One by one, the survivors, trying to move toward and through the presumable safety of a nearby forest, succumb: to injury, to exposure, to drowning, and to the wolves that continue to hunt them. At the time of the film’s release, a bit of a stink was raised by certain animal rights groups about the depiction of wolves in The Grey. Real timber wolves, they argued, simply don’t behave so aggressively, aren’t as fearsome as depicted, and most certainly aren’t as large as some of them appear. But that’s missing the point. The wolves the survivors face are not just wolves; they are Death incarnate: inevitable, unrelenting, and at times terrifying as all hell. They aren’t meant to be realistic. They are meant to be unstoppable.
Close to the end of the film, Ottoway’s last surviving companion, Hendrick, drowns in a near-freezing, fast-flowing river. Dragging himself to the bank after failing to save him, ice congealing on his face and clothes, hypothermia setting in, Ottoway curses God, railing against his inaction, his lack of care, his refusal to intercede. This scene also roused controversy, but again, those who find it offensive miss the larger point: it is Ottoway’s final words in this sequence that truly matter. He waits a moment, the rant met only with the silence of the gray, overcast sky, then says, “Fuck it. I’ll do it myself.”
Throughout the entire story, Ottoway, once so close to suicide, has been a guide to others — trying, but failing, to keep them alive. Through his brief relationships with them, along with witnessing their unique reckonings with death, he ironically finds a renewed purpose in his own life: simply trying to stay alive, even when he no longer has anyone to look after. Left alone, the chances of survival now virtually hopeless, he nevertheless gets back to his feet and struggles on.
God, one may argue, helps those who help themselves. Or perhaps God has nothing to do with it at all. Regardless, the message, if not the means, is clear: in our darkest hours, we must turn to our own courage and will. What inspires that is both subjective and personal. As it should be.
The ending of The Grey remains haunting, even after repeated viewings. Bleary-eyed, freezing, Ottoway staggers through a forest of close, identical saplings. Eventually, exhausted, he kneels down in the snow, opens his backpack, and removes a plastic bag full of wallets…Every time one of the men died, the survivors would collect his wallet, so that all the names of the fallen would be documented, and with the dwindling hope that whoever made it out alive would be able to turn them over to the authorities.
Now Ottoway goes through every one, looking at photos of dead men with wives and girlfriends they will never kiss again, children they will never hug again, or in one case, simply at a man’s driver’s license, since he had no one else. Silently he honors them, placing the wallets in even stacks. A monument, however impermanent, is still a monument; in the grand scheme of existence, a dandelion placed lovingly on an unmarked grave is just as meaningful as a pyramid that lasts for thousands of years. Perhaps Ottoway realizes that. Or perhaps it is simply the most he can do.
Then he looks up. Animal skeletons litter the terrain. The timber wolves have surrounded him. The spot where he has collapsed is their den…the heart of the very place he was trying to leave behind.
More criticism upon the film’s release stemmed from the fact that Ottoway’s plan is thus flawed from the start…In trying to lead the men out of the pack’s range, he ultimately leads them directly toward its center. Is Ottoway that inept? It hardly matters. Again, I see this as part of the film’s message: all paths in life lead, eventually, to a reckoning. It is unavoidable. And this is where, and when, Ottoway will meet his. The only variable that remains, as it did for all the fallen men who survived the plane crash only to die on the journey, is how he will choose to meet it. The focus of The Grey isn’t on what kills us, but how we deal with death when we face it. Do we give up? Or do we fight?
The alpha wolf, massive, black-haired, and yellow-eyed, closes in, and all the other wolves in the pack retreat in deference. If Ottoway does choose to fight, it will be with a true monster.
An elegiac, melancholy piece entitled “The City Surf,” by Jamin Winans, begins to play. Ottoway folds his letter to his wife into his wallet, then flips over to her photo. He flashes back to a memory we have now seen several times: of them lying in bed, and her cupping his cheek and telling him, “Don’t be afraid.” But only now do we finally see the full context: they are in a hospital room, and an intravenous drip is connected to her arm. His wife didn’t divorce him. She died. And his reason for living died with her.
And only now, finally, do her words resonate: “Don’t be afraid.”
Falling to his knees and going through the wallets suggests Ottoway had reached his breaking point and was preparing to give in. Yet in a subtle, beautifully-acted moment, resolve now floods his face. The alpha steps closer. Ottoway stabs his knife into the snow and dumps out the remaining contents of his backpack. This includes several sample-sized glass whiskey bottles from the airplane, along with a watch that sports a small but functional tracking beacon. All along, the watch has probably been useless; in fact, at one point Ottoway argued it was. Nevertheless the men kept it, passing it from one to another as their numbers dwindled. Now Ottoway himself puts it on: a tiny, faint hope, but a great, profound gesture. He tapes the bottles to his left hand and breaks them against a rock, then tapes the knife to his right. He’s going to fight.
He then flashes back to his childhood, when, in a rare moment of tranquility, his abusive, alcoholic father put him on his lap and showed him a poem. And for the third time in the film, Ottoway recites it:
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…
Ottoway’s eyes narrow. He tenses. He lunges straight at the camera…
And the screen cuts to black.
As the credits began to roll, I heard at least half a dozen people in the audience say, “What the fuck?” A low, collective groan went up. “That’s it?” someone said. “We don’t even see the fight?”
Believe me, I felt the same. And this is when, once again, the trailer does the film a disservice: at the very climax of the trailer, generic action music pumping, Ottoway is shown charging forward in a sprint, the broken bottles taped to his hand, as the alpha lunges toward him in an opposing shot. The movie ended literally seconds before this; none of the final fight, even though it was filmed and partially shown in the trailer, made the final cut.
I left the theater. It was almost midnight, and the parking lot, packed before I went in, was now almost empty. A thick but gentle snow, just like in the film, had started to fall. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered. What I’d figured would be a fun, energetic action film had left me pensive, reflective, and kind of down. It was a lonely, dark ride home, and the whole experience had accomplished exactly the opposite of what I’d hoped.
Yet The Grey stayed with me, especially the ending. And over the years, away from the misplaced promotional material that influenced (at least to a degree) public opinion, the film has gained a newfound respect among many viewers.
Even driving home on that very bleak February night, I knew it was something special – much more than I had expected, even if it wasn’t what I wanted at the time. There is something profoundly moving in the act of fighting on even when the odds are greatly stacked against us. And when Death itself is the adversary, the outcome all but guaranteed, to fight against it is one of the noblest acts of all.
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” Taking the quote at face value, I disagree. I’ve known many people who have been defeated by life yet live on for decades in such a state. But perhaps, in that Hemingway-way of his, he was actually saying that if you’re a real man, you don’t ever give up, regardless of the stakes. Replace “A man” with “The brave,” and the message becomes even clearer.
Certain challenges in life can teach us to live again, even if the challenge itself means we only have a short time left to do so. Ottoway’s wife comforted him when she was dying. And at the end of his own life, he finds that same wellspring of strength in himself. That’s why the ending fight between Ottoway and the alpha doesn’t need to be seen. The fact that he’s willing to fight is what’s important…not the outcome.
“The fray” could therefore be a synonym for life itself: “Once more into life.” And that, despite the situational darkness of The Grey, is profoundly inspirational.
PS – there is a very short final shot after the credits. But it, too, is open to interpretation, and doesn’t change the message of the film.