Open Road Films
I can’t pinpoint precisely when I realized that The Grey is an allegory, but I knew from the opening scene that it was no ordinary action thriller.
I call attention to this fact because this was certainly not the impression I received from the marketing for this film–but how often, really, does that ever match up with content? Moreover, Liam Neeson has been so well reconstituted by the success of Taken that it’s no wonder producers thought to milk that angle for the promotion of this piece.
(I should have known better, personally, the moment I read the name.)
I had my own view of Neeson, however, coming into this film. It’s a view informed by a painful detail of his personal life that his fame made all too available to the rest of us, whether we wanted to encroach upon his private grief or not. It’s a view, quite frankly, that I wish I did not have.
Still, Neeson’s wife, Natasha Richardson, died in 2009 of an epidermal hematoma she incurred during a skiing lesson in Quebec. I wish I could say I haven’t thought about this fluke loss every time I’ve seen him in a movie since, but many of the roles I’ve seen him in–haunted, jaded, quiet (in essence, the pared-down everyman)–have made this personal fact extremely hard to forget.
To that end, The Grey was the hardest exercise yet, because I cannot believe that Neeson’s terrible loss did not factor into director John Carnahan decisions throughout this project, and particularly around the main character’s story arc. Put another way, I do not believe the title role, “Ottway”, could have been filled by anyone who did not have Neeson’s weight of experience–and I don’t entirely know what to make of that. I cannot know what this film meant for Neeson (nor do I wish to), but I also cannot shake how deeply personal this film seemed to me.
In it, Ottway works on an oil rig with other men unfit for any society but that of the freezing cold north. While flying south on leave, his plane crashes, and a mere seven men survive the 400-mile-per-hour descent into the freezing barrens. There they find they are not alone, having become the number one target of a local wolf pack, with slender hope of rescue arriving in time.
When one sees the inordinate size of these wolves (and remembering the real-life atypicality of wolf attacks on human beings), an inkling emerges that something larger than the predators is really at stake in this film. Before the wolves arrive, the nature of that stake may already have been revealed, too, in the way Ottway humanely, and without embellishment, informs an injured eighth passenger that he is dying.
As other members of the surviving band are picked off in even more brutal ways, amid a series of wilderness hardships that also attest to this not being precisely as realist a film as its cinematic aesthetic suggests, that thematic existentialism comes again and again to the fore. One survivor holds forth halfway through The Grey on the importance of faith; others find no use or place for such beliefs in the real world; all have stories, and pasts, and often even loved ones who constituted the essence of their lives.
What does it mean to survive in a world where death eventually claims us all–indiscriminately, often quite violently, and at any given moment? What is the right measure of endurance against such odds? What worth, if any, are the lights we kindle in our hearts against that most ancient and impending chill?
“The Grey” is right: this is a movie about men in purgatory, wavering every step of the way between the fragile hopes leading them forward and the greater threats that inevitably await them there.
To carry this film’s allegory to its inevitable conclusion, if we, too, are fortunate enough not to be picked off along the way, we will still most certainly face the wolves’ den at the end of our lives. At this juncture in the film, Ottway invokes a scrap of poetry clearly inspired by Shakespeare’s “Once more into the breach, dear friends” (Henry V), but without the reliance on patriotism for its own call to arms:
“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.”
And yet there is nothing really new to this–nothing, that is, which does not hearken also to Dylan Thomas’ entreaty that his father “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”
So it is that generation after generation of men (and women) works out for itself the measure of a life; the measure of loves found and lost; and the value of forging on against all bitter odds. So it is that we will all die at this journey’s end, and all our most precious moments will then most likely be lost–but still, for a time, and to an extent that each of us can only ever know for ourselves, we will have lived.
How fiercely, honestly, and brokenly The Grey seems to cherish that.