The Grey is a deplorable example of exploitation, cruelty, and nihilism masquerading as philosophy. Here is a “survivalist” story in which the survivors are given the same reverence as horror movie victims, who appear to have depth and yet are merely awaiting their turn to die on cue. Not merely die, but become playthings for “nature,” which in this case is about as unnatural as it gets. It’s bad enough we have to endure a plane crash and several shots of bodies strewn throughout the wreckage; those that survived are left stranded in the frozen wilderness of an Alaskan forest, at which point they’re each stalked by a pack of wolves. In a more thoughtful movie, the wolves would be depicted as products of their own environment, hunting only when necessary. Here, they’re depicted as psychotic killing machines with borderline supernatural powers.
To be sure, we also see examples of hypothermia, oxygen deprivation, drowning, and bleeding to death. But the wolves are the real culprits. They attack the human characters with little to no warning. In many cases, they pop out in sudden bursts, like skeletons in one of those cheap carnival funhouses you ride with on dates. Their intention, we’re told, is not to eat but merely to kill. We know this not just because of how they tear their prey to shreds, but also because of numerous shots of them surrounding the characters. In one, several pairs of eyes appear out of the darkness and glow fiercely. In others, we see rows of them as they prowl low to the ground. Most of the time, we only hear them howl in horrifying unison. And to think director Joe Carnahan allowed just one shot of a full moon emerging from a veil of clouds. Too bad those three seconds were captured on a Queasy Cam.
The humans are led by a man named Ottway (Liam Neeson), a wolf hunter for a petroleum company. He’s established during opening sequences as deeply introspective in matters of death, in part because of memories of his dead wife, in part because of what he does for a living (for which he should be ashamed of himself). Mostly, though, it’s because of a letter he’s writing to no one, which is narrated for the benefit of the audience. This is followed shortly thereafter by a suicide attempt in which he puts the working end of his rifle in his mouth. I don’t remember if he chickens out or is stopped, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t really care. He and a group of laborers board a plane bound for Anchorage, only for the plane to crash dramatically. Out of all the survivors, he quickly appoints himself leader. They gather all the necessary supplies such as airplane fuel for making fires, but it seems he’s more interested in what waits for them in the wilderness.
He’s a wolf whisperer, you see. He knows how wolves think, feel, and behave. And so he spends much of the film warning the survivors about them with the tact of a counselor telling a ghost story to frightened young campers. The survivors try to keep their wits about them. Little do they know that they’re actually starring in a horror movie, and that in horror movies, there’s usually a pecking order applied to the victims. Typically, they’re stock characters with little to no depth. In this case, they’re developed on emotionally manipulative conventions. One has a young daughter he would have loved to see again. Most have women or relatives they left behind. And then, of course, there’s the one guy that questions the leader’s authority and spends most of the film angrily rubbing everyone the wrong way. Here’s one character that should be eaten by wolves just because it will finally shut him up.
They’re developed in other obvious ways, most notably by having discussions and debates on life, death, God, and the afterlife. This eventually leads to more personal admissions, including Ottway’s description of his Irish father, who was a hard drinker and a bit of a poet. What I don’t understand is why the filmmakers bothered to develop the characters at all, given the apparent pointlessness of their very being. The message, as I understand it, is that you shouldn’t love or laugh or even live, because in the end, it’s all going to be taken from you. Is there any particular reason why we should leave a movie feeling more hopeless than when we first entered? Why not consider the insane notion that life, though short, is beautiful and precious, and that, regardless of what does or does not exist spiritually, what we do while we’re alive truly does matter?
Alas, the filmmakers are much more interested in men being eaten by wolves. How pleasant. The film is based on the short story “Ghost Walker” by Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, and while I haven’t read it, I have a sneaking suspicion that The Grey is remarkably faithful to it, if only because Jeffers gets half of the screenplay credit. How sad that he seems to place no value on humanity or nature. I cannot recall the last time I left a movie feeling so depressed, so defeated, so angry that it had to make a point about how there is no point to be made. I presume it will be warmly received by the horror and action aficionados, as it regularly delivers the cheap thrills. Those of you looking for something deeper may want to consider bringing along a box of tissues, a dose of an antidepressant, and the phone numbers of several well-respected therapists. Trust me, you’re going to need them.
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Open Road Films