There was a heaviness in the air when I put on The Grey Blu-Ray. It was Monday night; not long after the news of Bowie’s death, not long after a friend’s father had passed away. The air was warped by the weight of the precariousness of life, particularly given my own circumstances; I was visiting my parents with the rarely-spoken recognition of mum’s cancer diagnosis hanging between us. The Grey seemed like a timely remedy; a silly Liam Neeson action movie à la Taken or Non-Stop to release the tension.
The Grey isn’t that movie. Rather than dispelling the clouds that had been accumulating that afternoon, the film thickened the atmosphere with a multifaceted take on human mortality. The premise, taken from Ian MacKenzie Jeffers’ short story Ghost Walker, is suited to genre shlock: a handful of oil-men survive a plane crash in isolated Alaska and are hunted with an improbable relentlessness by gray wolves.
I’m not an expert of wolves’ behaviour, but it’s safe to say that their hounding of the survivors is a decent distance from realistic. Initially, expressionist flourishes – the blackness of night filled with the demonic glow of dozens of pairs of eyes – suggest that these are less natural beasts than movie monsters, possessing a malevolence befitting the likes of Alien’s xenomorph or Predator’s Predator. But after an initial flurry of action, where one man is fatally mauled by wolves as they camp by the wreckage, it becomes clear that writer/director Joe Carnahan isn’t interested in making a slasher movie, nor the “white-knuckle thriller!” described on the Blu-Ray packaging.
It’s tempting to regard the wolves, who dog the survivors’ footsteps as they trek south in search of human life, as symbols of something. Given Neeson’s character’s circumstances – he’s suicidal after the death of his wife – perhaps they’re manifestations of grief. The ‘black dog’ of depression given fearsome form as a snarling wolf. I don’t find this interpretation satisfactory as, despite the wolves’ unrealistic behaviour, The Grey largely adopts a realistic approach to its story and, especially, its characterisation (while Neeson might quote poetry, these are not poetic men. They are brutish and clumsy and cruel. “Men unfit for mankind.”). To take it specifically as an allegory for depression seems reductive. But as a broader tale of the fighting against and succumbing to death, it succeeds.
After the plane crash, Neeson’s character, Ottway, comes across a mortally wounded man (James Badge Dale). “You’re going to die,” he tells him, with as much sympathy as he can muster, and that line could’ve have easily been the film’s tagline (though it’s actual tagline, “Live and die on this day”, isn’t too far removed). Given that The Grey is a film that opens with Liam Neeson reading a suicide note, it perhaps should not come as surprise that it’s more interested in the philosophies and realities of death than it is the specifics of wolves in winter.
Aside from Badge Dale’s passing – “Who do you love? Let them take you.” – the first couple of deaths are brutal and without meaning. There’s the aforementioned guy mauled after they set up camp – when he’s taking a piss, even – and then another member of the party (Joe Anderson) is killed by wolves when he falls behind the group in a trek through the snow. Unlike most stories of this nature, the hero is neither confident nor competent; Ottway is cold, frightened, and low on serious suggestions for how to escape their plight. The only sign of human life is, tellingly, the severed stumps left by loggers (if you squint just right, there’s an environmentalist moral here).
The purpose of the film is crystallised in the scene’s most overtly ‘thriller’ moment, when the surviving men plan to descend a cliff face by creating a makeshift connection between the cliff’s ledge and an adjoining tree. The last man to shimmy down their hastily-tied together rope of severed seatbelts is Dermot Mulroney’s Talget. He’s clearly nervous about the precariousness of the challenge facing him – he’s afraid of heights, for one – and Carnahan’s choice to keep the camera with him is clever for a few reasons (one: it draws him into his headspace and two: by allowing Neeson – our presumed protagonist – to cross safely, it has us questioning the last man’s likelihood of survivial).
But his dilemma is a broader encapsulation of the existential dilemma facing these men; whether to rail against hardship in a doomed fight for survival, or to accept his fate by refusing to cross. (“To be or not to be,” essentially.) Talget doesn’t survive the crossing. The rope snaps, and after being badly hurt in the fall he’s dragged off by unseen wolves. And the viciousness of his passing is integral to how The Grey regards death. This is not some airy-fairy piece that positions shrugging off the mortal coil as some profound transition. Oh, it feints at divinity – such as when Frank Grillo’s character decides to simply stop by a creek and end his days surveying a beautiful view of forested mountains – but it never forgets that the fight for life is harsh and difficult and often futile.
There’s no grand philosophical message waiting at the end of The Grey. Nor is there much hope. It’s not a film made to appease your anxieties about your own mortality, nor is it interested in entirely scrubbing away the salve of faith. Oh, the screenplay is sceptical about religion – “Fuck faith! Prove yourself!” Ottway proclaims at one point, but later he beseeches the sky for answers (that never come). The Grey understands that sometimes fighting for life isn’t worth it … but, more often than not, it is.