Friday, February 3, 2012

What's So Great About The Grey? Liam Neeson Punching Wolves!

It took a few days, but after seeing the initial ads for The Grey, I started thinking: every movie, ever, should just be Liam Neeson punching wolves. From now on. It's Liam Neeson! Punching! Wolves!

I'm a big fan of Taken, and I love seeing Neeson use his "very special set of skills" on deserving baddies. And, hell, wolves have a pretty bad reputation throughout human history, something that oversensitive modern day environmentalists gloss over.

So last weekend I trekked out to the movies with some friends... and saw the film. And loved it. In fact, I got so excited about The Grey that I went on a fervent Facebook/Twitter spamming spree with wolf-punching jokes. See the following:

Apparently I'm the only person who thinks these are hilarious... no retweets and a single Facebook "like". Whatever. I guess people don't want a reinvention of "Chuck Norris jokes". Fine.

But to be honest, all the wolf-punching jokes are ultimately a big fake out, because that's not what The Grey is actually about.


The Grey is really an exploration of survival in a world without God. It's a battle not against literal wolves, but figurative ones that represent a vicious, unrelenting threat from nature. It's about our humanity and the struggle to... have humanity. It's about finding the reasons to survive in a nihilistic world. It explores the darkest corners of our hearts and the better angels of our nature.

It's truly a surprising film, especially given how it was marketed. Stunned by the ending, I joked walking out of the theater with friends: "... So... the real wolf Liam Neeson punches was the one in his heart."

Let's dive into The Grey.

The very beginning of the film shows a tired and cynical John Ottway (Liam Neeson) working for an oil company in a remote world of outcasts. He visibly distances himself from other bar folk, downing some "last meal" whiskey before leaving a brawler-filled tavern with his rifle. From there, he goes out into the cold and prepares to shoot himself with his rifle; he narrates a letter to a love-- obviously lost, but mysterious as to how. It is here we first hear the poem that is repeated through the film, a poem we eventually learn was written by his father:

Once more into the fray.
Into the greatest fight I'll ever know.
Live and die on this day...
Live and die on this day...

In a bit of cliche film irony, Ottway hears wolves howling in the distance and, interrupted, opts not to commit suicide. The very wolves that incidentally save Ottway become the force that will try to kill him. And what's more, the wolves will activate Ottway's survival instinct.
We also see the tender side to Ottway, when he shoots a wolf (as is his job requires) to protect the oilmen. He rests his hands gently on the dying wolf and seems to show a melancholic respect for both the wolf and death itself.
From there, we go to a plane headed back to civilization. Ottway again shows his emotional and communicative walls towards the other men on the aircraft, electing to sleep rather than socialize. Ottway always dreams of the same scene: lying in bed with his love (wife?), with her telling him not to be afraid.
Of course, the plane crashes, killing most of the passengers and jolting Ottway out of the dreamland escape where he gets to be with his one-and-only. Ottway has literally crashed into reality.
Here the film is formulaic; Ottway/Neeson shows his natural leadership and bands the survivors together. One of the survivors is soon to join the ranks of the crash victims, and Ottway is gently (but bluntly) honest with the man, mirroring his earlier treatment with the wolf. He tells the dying man that yes, he is going to die... and that he should put his mind to those he loves. It's a kind yet shocking confrontation with unavoidable, assured death; Ottway doesn't humor the man with platitudes, and he cuts to what he thinks matters most as we depart this world. This is his gift to a man in his last moments, and it's powerfully unexpected.
Internal group conflict arises when a scumbag survivor attempts to loot cash from dead passengers; he also snatches a digital watch that he hopes will send out a GPS signal. The Ottway-Neeson-Jedi does not approve of the wallet thievery, and he stands the man down with uncanny bad-assity. Judging by horror film formula, we think that the wallet looter will probably die next. Horror films typically have a linear sin::punishment structure that's easy to predict.
Then come the wolves; Ottway is the first attacked while fending a wolf off of a dead victim of the plane crash. He makes it away with just a small bite wound, but the camp of survivors first face the glowing eyes of a huge pack of wolves. The suspense here is palpable, and we first see that these wolves are not meant to be taken "seriously". These wolves operate as narrative villains: forces of nature and the untamed brutality that lies outside of civilization. The imagery is startling and incredibly effective.
After the wolves take down their first plane crash survivor (random dude that's not the wallet-looter, but makes the classic horror film mistake of taking a whiz) the group realizes that they'll be in danger staying put. Ottway fears that they have crashed in the "kill zone", a radius too close to the wolves' den wherein they will defend the territory mercilessly. With this the plot-wolves are given their excuse to be unrelenting. Ottway, in a refreshing moment of "I don't know" uncertainty decides rashly to head to some distant trees, and the men follow his leadership. The wallet-looter mocks Ottway's uncertainty but seems to be dealing poorly with the futility of their situation himself. He prefers drinking the liquor mini-bottles salvaged from the aircraft.
In another moment of irony, Ottway decides that they group should actually collect wallets.... to provide them to the families of the deceased. The wallets will remain a theme for the rest of the film; they are a symbol of identity, permanence, and the reasons to survive.
As the group approaches the woods, the comic relief character (Joe Anderson from Across the Universe, The Ruins, and The Crazies) gets picked off. This character had been fairly central to the story thus far, so his death is a big surprise. His wallet gets added to the collection, and the group tumbles down an incline to escape the wolves. In a Survivor-like challenge, the group creates a fire before the wolves close in.
Unseen (but heard) the wolves have an internal struggle of their own: a challenge to the Alpha Wolf, who puts the threat to his leadership down. Analagous to the wolves, Ottway and the wallet-looter (OK, fine, his name is Diaz) argue; Ottway puts the challenge down, just as the Alpha Wolf did, making Diaz the Omega of the group. Appropriately, the Omega Wolf (the outcast) approaches the encampment and attacks Diaz, at which point the humans kill it and earn their first victory. In a defiant and pragmatic display, they cook the wolf, eat it, and Diaz vengefully cuts off its head and throws it back to the wolves.
In an artfully disturbing response to the Omega Wolf decapitation, the wolves circle the camp and howl ominously. The echo through the camp is incredibly eerie, and Diaz is cowed by the unexpected consequence.
The men hike on and brace for an incoming blizzard. It is during this time we see the gentle side to these wild men. The group share their reasons for going on-- one, Talget, misses his daughter. Diaz regrets his latest female conquest. Ottway reveals his father, a stereotypical drunk Irish fighter, had a poetic side: this is where his poem comes from. On a darker turn, both Diaz and Ottway reveal their atheism, although Ottway is sad to do so; they feel that this reality is the one with which they should be concerned. Talget, contrarily, expresses his feelings that faith is important.
When the blizzard hits, another of the group (having suffered continually from altitude sickness) freezes to death.
To speed up the synopsis, the group continues to whittle down. Talget, the man who missed his daughter (and loved her hair brushing his face) hallucinates that he sees her after he falls from a tree/rope the group was scaling. In fact, the "hair" is actually that of the wolves that are killing him. This is a subtle display of the film's atheistic tone. A man who believes in faith meets his end with a hallucination, blind to the horrifying reality surrounding him. And perhaps that really is a better way to go-- maybe it's a better reality, even if it's not real. 
Diaz, the would-be wallet thief, has survived down to the final three, but after injuring his knee and reaching complete exhaustion, decides that his life is not worth living. He convinces the remaining two that he is satisfied-- a beautiful scenic background is as good as it will get for him. He gives Ottway the GPS watch for "luck". Then as Diaz sits, and as the wolves approach, he quietly whispers that he is not afraid. He meets his end not as the jackass that meets his karma. He is a character that apologizes, seeks redemption, and meets futility with scrapped dignity.
With the remaining two alive, survivor Hendrick confronts Ottway about the night that he planned to kill himself. He tells Ottway that he saw the look of deathly acceptance on his face-- the same look Diaz had-- when he left that bar with his rifle. Hendrick admits that he did not think he would ever see Ottway alive again after that night. Ottway shrugs it off, and tells Hendrick that it doesn't really matter now.
Two wolves rush at the men, and Hendrick falls into the water and gets his foot caught. He stupidly drowns just inches from the surface as Ottway tries to save him.
At this point, the film reaches its philosophical precipice. Ottway crawls out of the water, stares up at the sky in despair, and demands that God give him a sign. Why go on? Why continue? Faith is not enough at this point; Ottway feels the need for some genuine, tangible deliverance. He demands it! And his shouts go unanswered. God does not respond. The vacant, unchanged sky is a depressing reinforcement of Ottaway's new found solitude and humanity's loneliness.
It is here that the film reveals its atheistic and borderline nihilistic undertone. There are no answers to prayers in this film's reality; there is just the constant struggle to go on. Ottway ultimately decides "f*** it, I'll do it myself." Much in the token of absurdism, we continue to fight to survive in a godless, meaningless world.
As Ottway staggers on, he eventually falls to his knees. He takes out the wallets, placing them in a cross shape on the snow. As he opens them, he receives his salvation: the beauty in the lives of the men who have died can be found in their photographs: wives, children, lovers. Memories of love.
At this moment of rapture, Ottway looks up and finds himself surrounded by wolves. He's found himself on his knees in the one place he had been attempting to flee. "It's the f***ing den." he says, ruefully.
So now, at the moment of final suspense, with Ottway on his knees and the wolves creating a perimeter, the Alpha Wolf approaches. We see a glimpse of Ottway's wife, and a fleeting glimpse of a hospital IV-- his wife was dying, and he was lying beside her. "Don't be afraid" she said....
 Here we reach "the decision"; Ottway will fight. He puts on the GPS watch, "luck", quickly tapes liquor mini-bottle shards to his knuckles and a knife to his other hand.  Ottway recites the poem one last time, and lunges to the wolf.

And that's that. End film.
Oh, there is an after credits scene of the back of his head resting on the wolf, breathing heavily much like the wolf that Ottway shot at the beginning of the film. Is Ottway resting? Dead? We don't know.
I admit that the last scene gets me emotional; the implication with Ottway's wife hits close to home, and reminds of a time not so long ago. Whether Ottway's lover survived is not clear, but the implication is certainly not; thus Ottway's letter is not really for her to receive physically, but written for her all the same.
Ottway has lost his lover. He lost his fellow survivors. He is alone in the universe, abandoned by God and Man. But not his love. Not his humanity. The love in Ottway's heart survives, and the love of the men in his group who did not make it found in their wallet pictures. He won't give up without a fight. In a world where nothing is permanent but the fight to survive.... Ottway will fight to survive. Just to continue. It's a valiant ending to an unexpectedly smart film.
I still think wolf-punching jokes are funny though.


  1. Good movie, great main actor, gigantic atmospheare.

  2. You know there were a lot of B.S. about killing wolves and eating them and even more about showing wolves in a bad light,I mean whatever.I could go on & on about people missing the point and that there is just way to many people with to much time on their hands, plus that they missed the point entirely but why bother. What I will say is that until you've been in a situation & had nothing else but to depend on "you" are the one & only chance that you have,one wrong choice one instant of "trusting" & you are nothing, and do you think an animal is picketing in front of some group about furs and such silliness, NOPE!! just glad they got a full belly. I personally think this is a movie that every young man should have to watch, maybe with dad or grandpa, to give them an idea that life really is a crap shoot & you either come out shooting or you get shot. But then there I go stirring up the foo foo silly's again.