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.


Jason Bellamy said...

Indeed, the best thing about The Grey is that it's a survival tale. And I'm glad that the film didn't devolve into something silly, with six men taking on two dozen wolves with their bare hands (and for a bit, it looked like it was headed in that direction, no thanks to the trailer).

But the movie is oddly paced, too. (Readers: Spoilers from here.) For example, the goodbye with Diaz is needlessly long, not just in sum, but in each minor movement within the sequence -- each of them held a beat too long. And yet the sequence in which Hendrick gets appointed to jump off the cliff happens in only seconds, and Diaz and Ottway cross the gulf even faster, as if it's no big deal. Huh?

Speaking of the gulf: Didn't you have the sense that by going down this huge cliff and crossing that river that the men were getting away from the wolves? At least for a while? Or are those wolves experts at heading humans off at the pass?

You mentioned that you thought the wolf shots were overused, but it's hard to think of a movie of this ilk that's more restrained with its effects. Numerous scenes pass with no (or very limited) images of the wolves at all. And while I thought that provided some great throwback appeal (it's how they would have done it in the 60s), those wolfless scenes are among those that go on too long, causing the tension to evaporate (after a while it feels as if we're just watching five guys standing around a fire looking scared, because the overlong scenes call the movie's own bluff, if you follow me).

My other gripe, while I'm here, is that we didn't need three (or was it even four?) references to that poem. It works well for the final scene, but when Ottway brings it up while the guys sit around the campfire, the flashbacks are nice, yes, but the poem itself tells us nothing, despite the implied: "THIS POEM IS A METAPHOR AND WILL BE SIGNIFICANT LATER ON, SO PAY ATTENTION!"

Back to the positives: I agree that the scene in which Ottway consoles the man into death is the best in the film; great pacing; great tone; and great character development (Ottway isn't a bullshitter). Hendrick's death makes for another gripping scene.

Ten years ago, who woulda figured Neeson for parts like these? But he's perfect. Love it when he threatens Diaz over the wallet (although most of the other tough-guy one-liners fall flat, precisely because they feel like nothing more than tough-guy movie lines).

Hokahey said...

I'm kind of with you on most of your gripes here, Jason. I especially had a problem with the gap that they are crossing on long underwear, or whatever, tied together. The whole sequence stretches believability, and the film doesn't even need it really. Also, it seems like jumping the gap was the easier way to go - and then when we follow the man crossing the improvised rope, we see that it was an impossible jump. As for the wolves - guess they knew a way down.

Also, I agree that the tension does sag a bit when there is too much talking around the fire, though the sounds in the night kept the suspense going for me.

And right about the poem. One reference would be enough - or even better - what if we just see the poem on the wall and we know his father wrote it, but we don't hear the words until John recites them at the end?

And, yes, it is impressive that Neeson can pull off the tough-guy act. I think it is appropriate that he is older and gray-haired; perhaps it's not a job many people want. Neeson's age gives his character an interesting seasoned characteristic. He's weary of life, but he's a tough Irish bastard, and he's the only guy with a gun.

As I stated, the movie is not perfect, but the more I thought about it after, the more I liked it for its bleakness and its musings about life and death.

Jason Bellamy said...

Oh, one more thing: I'm not sure it was intended this way, but I prefer to think of Ottway as "The Grey." It works if you think about it.

Hokahey said...

Jason, I think that is a legitimate interpretation when you think of the character of John.

Steve's Blog said...

I enjoyed your review, especially the emphasis on the character of Ottway as "protector."! I think I liked The Grey even more than you did. I am partial to films that ask the big (or sparing, depending on your point of view) existential questions of the universe. This one does it cinematically. That is, it showcases marginal men in a marginal place. It emphasizes the primeval nature of the human condition by showing, through a series of grisly deaths, the fragility and absurdity of survival. There are no dramatic rescues, no climactic escapes. In fact, the obstacles overcome here are rendered pointless in the grand scheme of things. The filmmakers offer us hope in poetry and the memory of loved ones. Diaz offers it in a scene, while admittedly extended, reminds the viewer that a hint of humanity is essential to attaining peace. One gets the sense that the only thing these men are given on this final trial is a chance to meet. This film was reminiscent of The Wages of Fear to me--another thriller about roughened outcasts who must face unconquerable obstacles only to meet futile ends.

Hokahey said...

Steve - Thanks a lot for the comment! I am pretty sure I see the same thing in this film that you do. My criticisms just pick out little things that bothered. Essentially, I loved this film's existential explorations, and I'm a big fan of man vs. nature. (I'm going to see it again today.) I love how you point out that whatever they overcome is fruitless in the end. Also, I love your comparison here with The Wages of Fear, one of my favorite French films. (Also, have you seen Friedkin's version of that film: Sorcerer? It has its problems but I love it.)

Steve's Blog said...

I hope the second viewing of The Grey proves illuminating. I continue to discuss it with my daughter as she asks more questions about the ending. She is personally hoping for a part 2! I don't have the heart to disappoint her and tell her it's not likely. But to answer your question, I have seen Friedkin's Sorcerer and thoroughly enjoyed it. The bridge sequence ranks among the most intense sequences in cinematic lore. But it did seem a bit more distant than the Clouzot film. Nonetheless, the ending of The Grey (post credits) continues to be a source of debate in my household. I contend for now that the wolf gave Ottway his death much in the same way he gave it to the wolf and the passenger earlier in the film.

Hokahey said...

Steve - I thoroughly enjoyed seeing it again and I deliberately focused on all the existential philosophizing. I was really struck by how beautiful the death of Diaz scene is, how he accepts his death and says that the view of the mountains is his.

I like your interpretation of the tag end, but it seems that the wolf is breathing his last too.

The last shot in the movie before the credits shows the close-up of John's eyes - looking just as fierce as the wolves looked, perhaps more.

I think he definitely kills the wolf, and I would like to think that he survives. After resting, he rises up, slits the wolf's belly, plunges his hands into its hot innards, builds a fire, and eventually gets saved. Or he dies. Both possibilities are in keeping with the story.

Apropos of your comment that nothing the men do does any good, it's appropriate that John ends up in the wolves' den.

Sam Juliano said...

All in all I do like the film and appreciate this enthussiastic and accomplished essay, but I did find THE GREY narratively uneven, and poorly concluded, though the fronzen tundra provides all kinds of alluring visual possibilities including a veiled fatalism and inevitability. Leeson is rugged and the man vs. nature tale is a kind of cross between CALL OF THE WILD in atmospherics and TEN LITTLE INDIANS in execution.

Again, marvelous review here.

Hokahey said...

Sam, thanks for reading and thanks for the comment. I think The Grey is somewhat uneven - a little too much talking here and there - but it does get started quickly and Neeson carries the story.