Saturday, January 28, 2012
"At once terrible and of a great beauty": The Grey
What I like most about Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, a raw, gory, gripping Arctic survival tale, is that it is a raw, gory, gripping Arctic survival tale. In my book, that alone makes it a film worth watching, but this Arctic tale offers more.
The Grey follows the typical survival story pattern: plane crashes in a snowy wasteland; non-survivors die; survivors huddle; some panic and want to give up; some seem determined to survive; one take-charge guy rallies the men (the sole stewardess has died) to survive against the cold, and the hungry and very aggressive wolves whose space has been violated.
What elevates The Grey above your typical Arctic survival tale is its central character: a man named John Ottway, played excellently by Liam Neeson, a guard/sniper hired to protect the wild-and-wooly Arctic oil refinery workers who love to drink and brawl. What makes Neeson’s character interesting is that he is a deeply troubled individual, suicidal, the son of a drunken but poetic Irish father (seen in flashback images that reminded me of The Tree of Life). Ottway is also very much in love with a woman (seen in flashback images, saying, “Don’t be afraid”), but there is some unnamed division between them (Is it death?) that has separated him from her and sent him to this faraway outpost.
Another factor that elevates The Grey, another reason that I like it, is that it’s not just an action movie. There is a lot of action involving the unrelentingly vicious wolves, but the film also takes time to be a thoughtful exploration of the meaning of life and death in the wilderness, reminiscent of James Dickey’s To the White Sea and just about everything that Cormac McCarthy has written.
This philosophical texture begins with the death of a wolf shot by Ottway in order to protect workers. The workers don’t even seem to notice. But Ottway notices, and it affects him deeply. As the wolf lies breathing its last, Ottway kneels and places his hand on the beast’s rising and falling body. He feels the wolf’s death. It makes him think about what he’s going to do with his own life. This very powerful scene made me think immediately of a passage in Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing in which the main character looks sadly upon a dead wolf and contemplates all thing shining – or not so shining – as in Malick’s The Thin Red Line, another story that The Grey evoked for me. In The Crossing, Billy Parham laments the wolf’s death that makes him ponder all things that live and die in the universe:
The eye turned to the fire gave back no light and he closed it with his thumb and sat by her and put his hand upon her bloodied forehead and closed his own eyes that he could see her running in the mountains, running in the starlight where the grass was wet and the sun’s coming as yet had not undone the rich matrix of creatures passed in the night before her.
He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh.
But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it.
The death of the wolf in The Grey is mirrored by a later moment, the best moment in the film: when one of the mortally wounded non-survivors of the crash lies dying in the wreckage and John helps him die. His voice calm, soothing in its conviction, he helps the dying man embrace his death. While the others look on in astonishment, Ottway tells the dying man he will feel warm, as James Dickey writes in To the White Sea. For a second there was a terrific heat, like somebody had opened a furnace door, the most terrible heat, something that could burn up the world, and I knew I was gone.
The film ends with another striking image: Ottway kneeling in the snow watching the approach of the alpha male wolf (supposedly “the grey” though he doesn’t look very grey). I found this shot to be so reminiscent of that classic of Arctic non-survival tales: Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” In London’s story, the Man, at the end of his tether, kneels in the snow and knows that death is approaching. If he didn’t know it before, he now knows the power of nature and man’s comparative insignificance in the cosmic scope of things. Similarly, the men who spend the most time hanging in there, played by Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo, and Dermot Mulroney (looking, in his cap, very much like Steven Spielberg), find time to voice similar observations and quandaries about the mysteries of life and what they value most.
The Grey is not a perfect film. It would have been much more gripping had the wolves been shown more sparingly. Devices such as pairs of gleaming eyes in the darkness, puffs of vapor rising from the mouths of the howling wolves, and the horrifying noises emanating from the black forest, along with the excellent acting of all characters involved, do a lot more to create suspense and terror than the hairy but unscary animatronic wolves that come in close to join the campers by their fire. In addition, some viewers might consider the film’s ambiguous ending to be irritating though I urge you to hang in there through the credits to see an additional scene which is ambiguous in a different way. But The Grey is a raw, gory, gripping Arctic survival tale, and I definitely get behind that, as well as all the existential musings about that which cannot be held never be held, and all things shining, or dark and inscrutable, in this human adventure of ours.