The Grey (2011)

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*. You’ll often see The Grey described as an allegory, which at its most basic means it’s a story that suggests another story.
*. So on its surface this is a Jack London-style adventure yarn about a bunch of roughnecks whose plane goes down in the wilderness, forcing them to struggle to survive. What this story signifies is . . . well, something to do with facing up to one’s fears of death. Not going gently into that cold night. Or at least not getting eaten by wolves.
*. A lot of people don’t like the wolves. I don’t like them much myself. They’re CGI and animatronics and when they attack they don’t look remotely believable. It’s also been argued, with justification, that “real” wolves don’t behave like these ones do. So what we have here is some mighty regressive speciesism.
*. One particular thing that struck me was that the actual sound of wolves howling and yapping at night is scarier than they sound here, which means they missed an easy trick. I was surprised to hear on the commentary track that the sound of the alpha’s howl was a remixed version of a howl made by MMA fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Why bother if they could have used the real thing?
*. The response to the “these wolves aren’t real” criticism is that the movie isn’t about the wolves, or, to take things a step further, the wolves are just part of the allegory. They’re not real because they’re not meant to be real.
*. I’ll go along with this, at least part way. I think it’s telling, however, that on the DVD commentary none of contributors (including writer-director Joe Carnahan) mentions the word allegory. At one point the wolves are referred to as a metaphor, but only for nature, which is a bit of a shrug. I mean, the wolves don’t stand for the threat that nature poses to the men in some kind of symbolic way. They are a force of nature the men are up against in a literal sense.

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*. This questioning of the film’s realism, however, goes further than just the wolves. On the one hand (the surface reading) this is a raw, uncompromising look at man vs. nature, so if we’re confronted with a bunch of stuff that we can’t “buy” then a lot of that gets undercut.
*. Take the question of what the men do after the crash. “Nobody will find us, not here,” one of them says. Why not? That was a good-size jet. Don’t their black boxes send out a signal? And it’s not like they’re not on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. But it’s also said that “corporate” won’t care about their going missing anyway and will be happy to have them off the payroll.
*. Now normally I’m as cynical about corporations as the next guy, but why would corporate want the men to be dead? They were just rotating off, so presumably they were all still workers in good standing. And now corporate is going to have an even bigger headache with filling their jobs, insurance complaints, and various inquiries that will no doubt make their business harder.
*. Having determined that nobody is going to look for them the decision is then made to leave the crash site. Why? Why expose themselves to the wolves and other dangers, especially as they have no idea where they are or where they are going? Ottway suggests they might better be able to defend themselves in the trees because they’d be less exposed, but then immediately adds “I don’t know.” Seems thin to me.
*. You could argue that they need to go the woods in order to get some wood to burn, but once they’re there the outdoorsman Ottway can’t find or build shelter and can’t build a fire either except for the first one, which he uses jet fuel to get started.
*. I don’t want to knock Ottway too much, however, as he not only can write cursive, but can use a fountain pen! Talk about a dying art.
*. Another point relating to realism: There is clearly no way in hell that they could jump off that cliff into the trees. It looks like it must be about a sixty foot horizontal jump. And then when they do make it down to the foot of the cliff the wolves are already down there waiting for them!

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*. Finally, there’s the business where Ottway falls into the river and is swept along for a while before pulling himself out. You don’t have to be a outdoor survivalist to know that he would be dead in no time if he didn’t get out of his wet clothes and find a way to dry out and warm up after that. But he doesn’t even seem to suffer mild hypothermia.
*. It’s issues like these that make The Grey seem almost defiantly anti-realistic, which is what in turn fuels the talk of allegory. I just wonder how much of this was intentional.
*. I’m not sure I understand how the “bang sticks” Ottway fashions work. Wouldn’t they be better off arming themselves with the knives they seem to have? And yet they never use knives against the wolves (unless the wolves are already dead).
*. If you’re thinking from all this that I don’t like The Grey then I’ll change course now, as I do think it’s pretty good.
*. First off, Liam Neeson is made for the part, with his face that seems to be carrying all of the world’s suffering. You wouldn’t expect such a man to smile even if he got rescued.

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*. Then there is the sensitive and honest depiction of death. There are a number of very effective, powerful death scenes in this film, from Ottway telling the man in the fuselage that he’s dying, to Diaz wanting to die while looking at the mountains, to Henrick’s drowning (an homage to a similar death scene with Paul Newman and Richard Jaeckel in Sometimes a Great Notion).
*. A point worth noting: in general, when people die, or at least when men die, they fantasize about being reunited with the female. Here that means wives, lovers, daughters, sisters. I don’t think any of them mention a mother, though that’s what’s behind all of it. There’s more to this than just the fact that these are men without women. I’ll leave this as a public service announcement: If you’re ever in a situation where someone is injured or going into shock, the best thing you can do is find a woman to hold their hand.
*. These death scenes are moving in their authenticity, and they made me further reflect on how rarely we see death portrayed like this on screen. There are plenty of famous movie death scenes, moments in movies where someone dies in someone’s arms, but we rarely have moments like Ottway just telling the injured man straight-up that he’s dying, that sense of exhaustion, satisfaction and resolution in the character of Diaz, and the so-near-and-yet-so-far to the life-giving air in the drowning scene (though I’d add that the scene with Newman and Jaeckel is even more shattering, in part for being quieter).

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*. Another thing I really like is the nightmarish quality of trying to run away from danger in deep snow. That’s a bit of realism that works well in context, and leads to the tensest moments in the film.
*. As far as the movie’s deeper meaning goes, I wasn’t that impressed. The poem by Ottway’s dad is pretty bad. The business with his wife is left too enigmatic to really mean much. The campfire philosophy about fate and God and what’s real is just that. The existentialist message is reminiscent of Runaway Train, though it’s interesting that the line where the man shouts at the wolves “You’re not the animals! We’re the animals!” was an ad lib.
*. Finally, there’s the end. I mean the end end. Seriously, this post-credit nonsense has to stop. In case you didn’t wait to see it, after the credits we’re left with a shot of the wolf’s flank and the back of Ottway’s head.
*. Why include this? On the commentary track Carnahan describes it as “purely artistic,” meaning it had no bearing on how the film played to an audience (most of whom would have left anyway). But then he doesn’t give any explanation or reason why he did include it, and in any event it is so ambiguous it could mean anything.
*. The Grey is a fine film, and that shot at the end does nothing to detract from any of it. Hell, I missed it on my first viewing completely. But all the same I wish it wasn’t there and I’ll be glad when the start of a credit roll will once again mean that I can leave.

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