Screening Log #55: The Grey (2012)

Written by Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, based on his short story “Ghost Walker”
Directed by Joe Carnahan,
Starring Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, and Dermont Mulroney




It is axiomatic that death itself is the most natural aspect of living. Being that every person is finite – as far as I know, anyway – insofar as it comes to be, it must also pass away. As such, the volume of art created concerning death, and its celebrations and anxieties, is both strange and completely understandable. There is an important distinction to be made, however, between the abstract idea of death as inevitable and the concrete experience of this fact in its most immediate presence. The disconnect between the acceptance of death in its abstract and concrete forms is what catalyzes much of the anxiety articulated about death; it is easier to accept an end when it seems deferred and distant, rather than an immanent end.

Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, and its simultaneously sensational and ponderous engagement with death, positions itself as something like the love child of Jaws and one of Bergman’s chamber dramas. John Ottway, Liam Neeson, works on a camp in the far north of Alaska killing wolves for an oil company. Through the film’s initial voiceover the audience learns that his wife has left him; he is alone and depressed, considering suicide, before embarking on a flight back to Anchorage with his co-workers the next day. On the flight, Ottway dreams of his wife before the plane crashes in the wilderness, killing most of its passengers.

Ottway corrals the surviving men, bandaging them and instructing them on what needs to happen in order for them all to survive. They gather clothes and supplies to start a fire. The men, however, discover that the elements are not the only natural adversaries they must encounter; the group are beset by a pack of wolves that loom in the darkness beyond their firelight, beyond the frame, menacing and ghostly. Hanging past the margin of experience, the wolves represent a completely natural manifestation and concretization of this concept of death, made real, given hunger, instinct, and literal teeth. The wolves skirt the edge of firelight, existing as blurs and glowing eyes in the night. They pick off survivors when they are alone, using the washroom, or injured. Ottway informs the men that they must move from the crash site, toward the tree line, where they will have a better chance to survive against the wolves. What follows is a grim march toward inevitable death.

The group is small in numbers to start and shrinks cyclically throughout the journey toward the forest. Injured stragglers are attacked, other succumb to the equally brutal, if seemingly more merciful, elements. While the always present threat of the wolves allows Carnahan to cultivate an atmosphere of high tension through the film, the discussions between the men, lean the film toward a more existential consideration of the human condition than one would expect from a film that was, more or less, billed as “Liam Neeson versus wolves” – which was, frankly, enough to sell me on the film. The men discuss their personal histories, populated by evocative details of family and debates about survival and faith. In the face of their various ends, and between extinctions via wolf, the men are exposed to their essences, coming together or making peace with a situation from which there can be no escape.

As the coloured film title suggests, the film represents an allegorical point of synthesis between two extremes. Mixed somewhere between the white of being and the blackness of death is the grey of living. The film shifts between days of snow-blind whiteness and the deep darkness of night in its colours, the men moving between the two, themselves becoming both the literal and representing the figurative greyness invoked by the title. Implicit in this conceit is also, perhaps, the films central thesis – that death and life are not separate entities, but are implicitly linked in any sort of living, and that there is a dignified redemption and liberation to be found in the actual acceptance of this fact.

Opening up well beyond the constraints implied by its thriller marketing and premise, The Grey posits a visceral synthesis between life and death, between light and dark. While the film doesn’t seek to offer any definitive answer to the large questions it opens, it does however, in its final moments, perhaps gesture toward a sense that striving and human connection may, in themselves, provide adequate meaning; a quietly humane gesture in the den of wolves, literal and metaphorical.


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