Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Grey, a brief review

Spoilers referenced

A job at the end of the world. Stuck in the bleak arctic, Ottway (Liam Neeson) is a sniper hired by an oil crew to protect them against the worst nature has. With his dark past very present in his mind, he boards a company airplane home with an oil crew as uncivilized as the landscape. After a random storm, the plane crashes in a frozen hell of ravenous wolves and unforgiving conditions. With only wits and ebbing resources, Ottway realizes they are being stalked by a pack of wolves. And it becomes a race between species to out-fight the other as the cold blizzard brings most certain death.

And it is not just man against nature. It is man versus death.

As the opening voice over narrates the futility of a life devoid of meaning, Ottway is preparing to commit suicide. With his heart broken and his spirit in pieces, The Grey begins where most stories about redemption end. Neeson, with his gravelly voice and sunken eyes, is the last candidate I expected to find in this story, touted as “Taken” with wolves. As advertised, The Grey was touted as Liam Neeson kicking ass and making slippers out of the remains of wolf.

Instead, we get a soulful and complex figure haunted by the demons of the past, as well as the specter of death, and Neeson transcends his own acting action film persona to give us a character who is both fragile and strong. A man who bleeds and begs of the Divine to save him. The scene that involves Neeson literally screaming and cursing the Divine is both chilling in it's realism and horrifying when we realize that he might actually be right. The scene is so profound when one thinks about the personal background of Neeson, who lost his wife several years before.

When taken in that way, the scene that has now become inescapably haunting in my mind is all the more visceral and real. I wasn't certain it was Ottway who was screaming at the Divine, but Neeson. Though, I've heard that Neeson is a Roman Catholic, even the best of us find it crushing to even consider the hand of the Divine in the midst of unspeakable tragedy.

Indeed, death gets quite a bit of screen time, both in conversation and action, with the wolves manipulating the group, and the fights are sparse but vicious and brutal. But that is not the point of the story, and director Joe Carnahan (The A-Team) doesn’t dwell on the gore, only using it to point to the wider philosophical spectrum. The musical score is sparse, and allows the film to set it’s own pace, which allows for the silences to speak louder about the characters. There are scenes of graphic violence involving people's in a state of shock being ripped apart, but the images are often beautiful in their transcendent power. The violence is not the point.

Death, and how we deal with it, is the point. It is cold, calculating, and inescapable. Like God's judgment, there is nothing we can do to be free of it's curse. At least, for now.

I sat on my couch for three hours last night, pondering the philosophical concepts of The Grey. I didn’t remember the blood, the jump scenes, the scenery, the music or the acting; though all of that is outstanding. But, The Grey is not about the wolves, or even about Liam Neeson. It is first and foremost a story about God, and where He is when suffering bares it’s fangs. The film is not necessarily interested in answering the provocative questions it presents, nor should it, but it presents them in the midst of transcendent emotion and complex spirituality.

The ending is akin to The Sopranos, and it will divide audiences. I personally felt it ended on a pitch-perfect note, both ambiguous and gripping. It allows it’s themes to fully remain intact without succumbing to cliche, and frankly, it is refreshing to see a film end a film on it’s own terms, rather than on the expectations of it’s audience.

The twist that is revealed will not rock your world, but the climactic build up to it had tears in my eyes. It forces us to look beyond the present state of chaos and focus on what gives life meaning. And does that meaning involving more than just an instinct for survival?

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

Come for the wolves, stay for the rest. It will give you far more meaning for your dollar.

4.5 stars out of 5. 

For the original (shorter) review, check The Christian Manifesto.



  1. I'm, grudgingly, agreeing with your statement about the ending because, frankly, you're right. It would have been terribly cliche and cheesy to end it in any other way, and I do respect Carnahan for sticking to his guns. That being said, I still can't dismiss the hopelessness I felt leaving the theater. It begs the question: does a life really count if nothing is left behind?

  2. I think the hopelessness is indeed intentional by Carnahan. The entire story, if one takes it as analogous for reality apart from God, is indeed hopeless. I think life, by itself, is intrinsically meaningful, regardless of creed or what is left behind.

    And I don't think I wrote this in the review, but I did wonder if during the final few minutes of The Grey if it wasn't just the human will giving Ottway the power to fight back. Had he indeed been entirely hopeless, then I think there was no reason for him to fight back. But, there was something still left.

    It could've been instinct.

    It could've been free will.

    It could've been God.

    I'm inclined to think of it as a combination of all three.

    Great question, by the way. Its good to think on this. ;-)