A month ago I took an intersession class about The Bible and Film. For three weeks we learned about film analysis and how to identify universal themes in film. It was great fun, and I enjoyed analyzing movies that I normally wouldn’t choose to watch. Our final project for the class was to write an analysis of a movie of our choosing. I had been looking for an excuse to rewatch The Grey (2012). The paper was longer than a standard blog post, so I have divided it into two posts. The following post is part one; part two will be posted Monday. Since this is an extremely existential film, this is only one way to look at the film. Ultimately, each viewer who engages with this movie will probably reach different conclusions. I would enjoy hearing other peoples’ perspectives on the movie.
Wolf at the Door: Faith, Reason, and Masculinity in The Grey (2012)
Perhaps the most divisive part of Joe Carnahan’s The Grey (2012) is the ending. In “Survival Flick The Grey is a Tear-Jerker for Tough Guys,” Lewis Wallace revealed that the audience felt the movie promised an epic showdown between John Ottway (Liam Neeson) and the alpha wolf, a battle which the movie failed to deliver. The disappointment is easy to understand. The official trailer marketed The Grey as a man versus beast, survival thriller. It emphasized men fighting to return home, and it ended with shots of Ottway preparing for one-on-one battle against a wolf. But director Joe Carnahan had other themes in mind for his movie. Carnahan places his characters in a world devoid of meaning, a world where death stalks them on all sides. Using nature as a metaphor for encroaching death, The Grey explores Ottway’s struggle for faith and purpose after deep, personal loss.
The central concept of The Grey is similar to Tolstoy’s parable of the well in A Confession. In this religious autobiography, Tolstoy told of a time in his life when he longed for God but felt proving the existence of God was impossible. He relates a parable about a traveler who is pursued by a beast. The traveler takes refuge in a well but discovers a dragon at the bottom. Stuck between the beast and the dragon, the traveler grasps a branch growing out of the wall, but he soon discovers mice gnawing on the branch. The only solace from this predicament is a few drops of honey on a leaf. Such is the plight of man, doomed to die with nothing but temporary joy for distraction. Having come to see life as such a bleak prospect, Tolstoy contemplated suicide, but he felt he was too weak to go through with it. He struggled with the contradiction of longing for a God he could not rationally bring himself to believe in (pt. IV). All the while, death continued to stalk him.
The Existential Landscape
The characters in The Grey also face death. In the film commentary, Carnahan explains that each man was injured in the crash; these injuries increased in severity as the film progressed. This is seen most clearly as Burke (Nonso Anozie) suffers from an escalating case of hypoxia. Later in the film, Diaz coughs up blood due to implied internal injuries. It is only a matter of time before these men’s bodies fail.
The men face death on another front: nature. From the first shot, director Joe Carnahan signals the immensity of nature. The camera pans across trees and mountains using a low shot. Clouds slowly drift across the shot. Wolves howl. There are no humans and no evidence of civilization. The camera cuts to an oil refinery. Pipes and smokestacks replace the trees, the mountains with buildings. Smoke replaces the clouds; the sounds of machinery replace the wolf howls. Humanity has entered the wild and now attempts to tame it. In the film’s commentary, Carnahan said that “there aren’t many industries that perpetrate the rape of the natural world like the oil company. They are intruders, interlopers. They don’t belong there.” Nature wants these men gone. After they crashed in the snow-covered stretch of the Alaskan wild, blizzard conditions continually strike the men. A wolf pack hunts the men, picking them off one at a time. In his opening monologue, Ottway says they are on “the edge of the world” and he moves like he “imagines the damned do: cursed.” This curse is death, and it is never lifted from the men. It will one day overtake these men just at it will overtake everyone. As the Teacher says in Ecclesiastes 8:8, “No one has power over the wind to restrain the wind, or power over the day of death” (Harper Collins Study Bible). It is up to each man to find meaning because death could arrive at any moment.
John Ottway, the Broken Self
In the opening, Ottway makes his way past a church and stops in a bar for one last drink before he kills himself. In his voice over, he confesses that he has “stopped doing this world any real good.” He thinks about his wife (Anne Openshaw) who had died. In a shot after the plane crash, Ottway lays with his wife under a blanket. The camera is low beside him. He looks at his wife as she caresses him. She is suddenly pulled away, leaving Ottway alone in the snow. Ottway is like Job, his loved ones taken from him. Job’s words would resonate with Ottway, “Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures; who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad when they find the grave” (Harper Collins Study Bible, Job 3:20-22). Ottway is a man who had his anima ripped away from him. His happy ending never came, and now he longs for death.
Ottway has another problem, however. He also longs for God. His aching desire is to see his wife once again, and the afterlife is the only place this is possible. But Ottway only believes in things that are real. “I wish I could believe in that stuff,” he confesses to Talget (Dermot Mulroney) as the survivors huddle around a campfire and think about God and fate. “This is real, the cold. That’s real, the air in my lungs. Those bastards out there in the dark stalking us. It’s this world that I’m worried about, Talget, not the next.” Ottway longed for death when he was alone at the oil refinery. His only desire was to return to his wife, but his hand was stayed from pulling the trigger when he heard a wolf howl. Ottway found his purpose in the wilderness among the survivors. His purpose is keeping these men alive. He shapes the survivors into a pack. This is not a hunting pack, however, but a pack of social unity, a pack with a common goal: survival. To borrow from Camus, this is a pack united in solidarity. Ottway is their alpha. The greatest threat to their solidarity is John Diaz (Frank Grillo).
Part two will be up tomorrow.
Works Cited in Part One
“Camus.” In Our Time. Narr. Melvyn Bragg. BBC Radio 4, 3 Jan. 2008. BBC.co.uk. Web. 3 June 2013.
“Feature Commentary.” Dir. Joe Carnahan, Ed. Roger Barton and Jason Helman. The Grey. Dir. Joe Carnahan. Universal, 2012. DVD.
The Grey. Dir. Joe Carnahan. Perf. Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, and Dallas Roberts. Universal, 2012. DVD.
The Harper Collins Study Bible. Ed. Harold W. Attridge and Wayne A. Meeks. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006. Print. New Revised Standard Version.
Tolstoy, Leo. A Confession. Trans. Louise Maude and Aylmer Maude. 1921. N. pag. Minnesota State University Moorhead. Web. 2 June 2013.
Open Road Films. “Official Trailer.” TheGreythemovie.com. Open Road Films, 2012. Web. 4 June 2013.
Wallace, Lewis. “Survival Flick The Grey Is a Tear-Jerker for Tough Guys.” Wired. Jan. 2012. Web. 2 Jun. 2012.