Why Liam Neeson’s ‘The Grey’ is Much More Than You Think
The Grey is a 2012 action film set after a small plane crash in Alaska where six men are hunted by a pack of merciless wolves who haunts their every step.
I’ve been meaning to write about director Joe Carnahan‘s evocative The Grey since I walked out of the theater six years ago. I’ve started doing so often, snippets and notes here and there, threads and ideas, but have always put it aside, knowing I was still missing something … something that matters. It’s a rare film, a jarring, intensely subjective experience that has this ability to be two things at once, depending how you choose to see it. It’s a rugged action movie for sure. But for me, it’s altogether something else.
The story is, on paper, pretty easy to tell. There’s this man named John Ottway (Liam Neeson). He’s making a living up in Alaska at a large oil drilling site, patrolling the perimeter shooting wolves who stray too close looking for easy pickings. It’s a lonely job, one that takes a certain kind of mettle, and in the opening moments, we wonder not if John possesses such, but if it is enough. It cuts to a plane being boarded by the workers, and Ottway joins them, heading to places untold. Early into the flight however, a storm strikes and in a moment of madness, the plane goes down, crashing into the wilds of the frozen tundra, leaving only Ottway and six others alive. Now, unsure if rescue is coming, the cold squeezing in around them, they have to move. But they are not alone.
The film met with a lot conversation on release, topics mostly focused on the ending, which many found all too cut short, the trailers hinting at something the movie ultimately didn’t deliver, that being an action-oriented survival film with Liam Neeson smacking wolves right in the face. Audiences didn’t quite embrace it as much as critics, many, including myself, putting it on their lists of one of the best films of that year.
So here’s my approach, and with this exploration, there are major spoilers ahead. Let that be clear. The Grey is not what it appears. It’s a movie in disguise, tricking us with standards that make seeing it for what it wants to be more of a challenge. It’s a meditative work, rife with symbolism and metaphor that uses the man-versus-nature motif as a catalyst to detail the singular breakdown and redemption of a man dealing with horrific loss.
FAITH AND RELIGION
Many have suggested that The Grey is a treatise on personal belief, a modern work on the denial of a higher being, as Ottway claims he is an atheist to the men, though at one point, when things are at their lowest, he calls out with profanity and earnest upon God to “show him something real”, angrily given up and stating he’ll “do this on my own” when his plea goes unheard.
It’s easy to make this connection, seeing the bleak heartlessness of a frigid outdoors represent a desperate world absent of faith. Ottway has reason to be remorseful, something we get hints about throughout with fleeting flashbacks to a woman in a bed, and learn the truth of at the end. This makes sense and certainly, there is room for such ideas in Carnahan’s screenplay. However, I am convinced there is much more about Ottway and his plight than mere religiosity.
IDENTITY AND REMORSE
Ottway, a habitation name deriving from ancient Anglo-Saxon tribes, given to those who live near a stream a hill or the like, is a dark figure, not menacing, but hardened. He comes to Alaska with great ache in heart, and very early, we witness him slip the barrel of a rifle in his mouth, a deep and troubling weight clearly haunting his every step. The cry of a distant wolf stops him, and what emerges is a pattern as we listen to the film’s only use of narration.
Ottway asks a series of questions and statements, most starting with I don’t know why … the first being I don’t know why I’ve done half the things I’ve done. Right away, he is revealing great regret. He is suffering from depression and we question his past and actions unseen, the torment of which has long left him deeply scarred.
There is one only one survivor of that crash.
So we cut ahead to the aftermath of the crash. The narration is gone and Ottway adopts a powerful sense of survival, opposite of what’s been shown prior. The six other men fall under his leadership, some a little unwillingly, but eventually so. His breadth of knowledge both of the wolves and nature make him ideal. Just before they do they, we watch as Ottway tends to a man pinned in the debris, mortally wounded and bleeding out. The others plead for Ottway to save him, but in a twist, he instead pointedly tells the man he is going to die and gently guides him to this fate. It’s a heartbreaking moment of courage and tenderness that is the film’s most emotionally impactful. We get a sense that Ottway’s been here before.
What follows is the group’s trek into the woods in hopes of finding rescue or at least a haven from the lurking death. This is where The Grey becomes most symbolic. My feeling is that in truth, there is only one survivor of that crash, it being Ottway, and the men who follow are merely a collection of shadows in his mind that he must shed to make it out alive. They are vividly presented and given traits that offer some depth, each given greater value, but each also have importance in Ottway making his way to the film’s climax. The last one even questions him on that rifle from earlier.
As diverse personalities, these men allow Ottway to face these same elements of himself as he faces his greatest personal crisis. Extending that metaphor, there is a key moment directly after the crash where wallets of those killed are collected (after some disagreement from Ottway whether they should be), and these become tokens by which themes of identity emerge. Ottway begins to gather them again when his companions are eventually taken by the wolves or nature. These trinkets of identity are further evidence that Ottway is a man crowded by internalized conflicts, characters within who have sway but follow his lead.
Each of these doomed figures possess something that lingers within Ottway, he slowly changing as the men fall to their fates. Some are aggressive. Some are timid. Some are afraid. Some are sickly. Some are patient. All are vulnerable. The message here being that to reach the truth of what it means to be alive, to stand up to the choices made and the value of their consequences, both good and bad, one must be free of the burdens of these traits. They symbolize the regrets, possibilities, and familial bonds he no longer has. He must give up what shapes his past in order to move forward. What’s most important is that he be alone, stripped of all this when he finds himself in the den of wolves at the end. This is crucial.
And let’s remark for a moment about these wolves. It’s notable that at the start of the film, after Ottway shoots a grey wolf, he comes to its side and, like the man on the plane, guides it to a peaceful death. In truth, it is really the only ‘real’ wolf in the story, all others symbolic. The creatures that come to hunt him are, by all accounts, massive, demonic beasts who possess wolf-like traits and appearance, but are purposefully slightly different because they are monsters in the dark recesses of Ottway’s tortured mind.
Now the den. It’s no mistake that Ottway has not run from the home of the animals but instead come right to them. It is the battleground where Ottway must face his final demon – the loss of his wife to a terminal illness – the one thing he had no control of. While he was willing to give into the sorrow and let it lead him to a death by his own hands, we see him instead take to fighting it, the black alpha male wolf in his path metaphorically that last fight.
“Once more in the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day.”
This is the poem by Ottway’s father that is repeated a number of times throughout, and finally when Ottway equips himself for such. And then the screen goes black, rolling credits until a final image reveals that wolf is down, but still breathing, Ottway, lying with his back to us, leaning against the animal doing the same. We are left with ambiguity, though what is clear is that the demon is wounded and at least some hope exists. Hope exists. And with that in mind, the question is, did he fire that bullet when the gun was in his mouth? What is the journey from that moment to the end? In fact, did the plane crash even happen, or is itself symbolic of the trauma of his wife’s passing? That’s the great thing about The Grey, its power to make it possible to ask, and leave it to us to let linger. It matters. Any thoughts?