This is part two of my analysis of The Grey (2012), which I wrote for The Bible and Film. You can find part one and the introduction here.
John Diaz, the Untempered Masculine
John Diaz is the loner of the group. “It’s every man for himself,” he says when he disagrees with Ottway’s decisions. Diaz is ruled by masculine bravado. The only woman in his life was a prostitute who was a “piece of horrible ass.” Diaz has no family. He does not believe in God. He is loud, brash, and a drunkard. He refuses to admit weakness. As the survivors set up camp in the forest, Diaz asserts his gross masculinity and attacks Ottway’s leadership:
DIAZ: You guys with your fucking rules and orders and bullshit. Where are we? Look around. This is Fucked City, population five and dwindling. Two days, three maybe, if we really pull our shit together. And who’s in charge of that right now? This fucking guy? The Great White Hunter and his jerry-rigged fucking wolf sticks?
TALGET: Why are you constantly breaking balls and bitching about everything?
DIAZ: ‘Cause I wanna live, motherfucker. You understand that? I don’t want some timber wolf shitting me out on this mountain.
OTTWAY: You’re scared.
OTTWAY: You don’t need all that nonsense, all that chest-puff bullshit. What’s wrong with being scared?
As tensions escalate, Ottway says, “Talking tough means jack shit now. You’re not scared? You’re a fool. Worse, you’re a fucking liar.” Ottway, as the alpha, puts the challenge down, not by killing Diaz, but by attempting to bring balance to his unbalanced masculinity. Ottway offers him solidarity; he helps lead him from ego to self. Diaz is literally brought back into line when the alpha wolf enters the camp. Diaz stands between the group and the wolf. In a close-up of the men’s feet, Diaz slowly backs up until his feet are in line with the rest of the men. The unity of the group is further illustrated in a deleted scene where the four remaining survivors work together to start a fire. They encourage one another. Diaz has joined the pack.
John Diaz’s journey becomes complete when he admits his own frailty. As the final three survivors—Ottway, Diaz, and Hendrick (Dallas Roberts)—come upon a river, Diaz decides this is a good place to die. He wants his final moments to appreciate the view of a mountain in the distance. In the commentary track Carnahan says that Diaz knows that Ottway and Hendrick would do anything to keep him going, even dragging him. This would lead to all their deaths. Thus, Diaz decides to embrace his frailty and chooses how he will die—appreciating the beauty of nature. He reflects on the life he once knew. “What I got waiting for me back there?” he asks. “I’m gonna sit on a drill all day. Get drunk all night. That’s my life? Turn around and look at all that. I feel like that’s all for me. How do I beat that? When would it ever be
better?” He cannot beat nature, but he can appreciate it. Throughout this scene, Diaz refers to Hendrick as brother, indicating their bonding through hardship. He reveals his first name as John and laughs as he discovers Ottway is also named John. “Of course that’s your name,” he laughs. “Thank you, John.” Hendrick also introduces himself; the three men are now fully known to one another. He gives each of them a parting gift to help with the journey. The entire scene is framed as a full shot despite the intimacy which would usually be framed as a close-up. Carnahan revealed in the commentary that he wanted the audience to know that these men were connected, they were close. The audience had no place among them. The audience could only look at the men from afar because we had not earned the right to be there. But this shot also emphasizes the scale of nature in relation to the men. They may now be brothers, but they are still insignificant compared to nature. They cannot conquer it; they cannot win. After Ottway and Hendrick leave, there is a long shot from behind Diaz. His head is barely visible over a log. The river and mountain dwarf him. As the sounds of the wolf pack grow closer, he utters his last line: “I am not afraid.” He has found meaning in sacrificing himself for his brothers. Because of Ottway’s guidance, he has rejected bravado and embraced the beauty of nature rather than its cold cruelty.
Faith or Reason?
Ottway’s purpose was bound to the men of his pack. When Hendrick dies, Ottway cries out to God:
OTTWAY: Do something. You phony prick fraudulent motherfucker. Do something! Come on! Prove it! Fuck faith! Earn it! Show me something real! I need it now. Not later. Now! Show me and I’ll believe in you till the day I die. I swear. I’m calling on you. I’m calling on you!
There is no response, so Ottway decides, “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”
The question, of course, is what will Ottway do? What proof does he want? Rescue? Purpose? Death? Ottway is alone once more; his pack has been killed. He must confront the very question he started with: should he commit suicide? For Ottway, faith represents a return to his wife. There is no proof that death will reunite them. He wants to believe God exists because this will mean being reunited with his anima. He is willing to sacrifice his reason if God will reveal himself. Like Tolstoy, he is conflicted by his reason and by his desire for faith (pt. IV). God would put all this suffering and pain into context. He would create order from the chaos. Camus would call this absurdity, the desire for meaning in a world that intrinsically has none (Bragg). Ottway stumbles further, the weather taking its toll, tree branches ripping at his coat and skin. Nature scourges him and, according to Carnahan in the film’s commentary, it is laying him bare. Ottway finally falls to his knees and stacks the collected wallets into a cross. He looks at the pictures in each wallet, photographs of wives, daughters, and sons. In Diaz’s wallet he finds only a driver’s license, indicating that the man was truly alone. Ottway folds his hands over the wallet as if in prayer. In this moment Ottway realizes the greatest irony of his journey: he has arrived at the wolves’ den. He is surrounded by them. The alpha steps forward, indicating that this is between the two of them. He and Ottway are opposites; they are the two alphas. The alpha is death, and they have been locked in combat for the entire film.
This final scene connects the flashbacks Ottway has been having throughout the film. For the third time, he remembers his wife’s final words: “Don’t be afraid.” For a third time, he remembers the words of his father’s (James Bitonti) poem:
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.
These words have haunted his life, the words of his wife and of his father. In this final moment, they have coalesced. The two most important people in Ottway’s life offer their wisdom. If he fights the wolf and lives, it will be a miracle, a true sign from God. If he fights and dies, he will finally discover the truth he has been seeking and perhaps be reunited with his wife? Either way, he wins. He only loses if he refuses to fight. The film ends as Ottway rushes toward the wolf.
Carnahan does not show the fight. Thematically, this makes sense. The struggle had already happened. Ottway’s journey ended when he made his choice to fight. The audience is not given a concrete answer to whether or not God exists, and in doing so, The Grey allows viewers to make their own choice based on their experiences and beliefs. In an interview with Rebecca Cusey, Carnahan said:
I think if you’re an atheist, you look at the film and you say ‘He didn’t believe in God.’ If you’re a Christian: ‘100% he believed in God.’ I like that. I like that things coexist. I’m a hell of a lot more interested to hear people talking to me about the film than for me to be telling them about the movie.
It was this ambiguity that turned off test screeners, even though they admitted they would be talking about the movie for days to come (Wallace). This ambiguity is a universal struggle for humanity. What is the purpose of life? The book of Ecclesiastes is one of the most existential books in the Bible. The Teacher laments, “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them” (Harper Collins Study Bible, Eccl. 1:11). He goes on to say, “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Harper Collins Study Bible, Eccl. 1:14). Similarly, Job attempts to understand suffering after losing property, family, and health. In both books, the ultimate message is to have faith in God.
Ottway cried out for God to show him something real. But would Ottway consider God’s revelation to be real? In his moment of despair, was Ottway was willing to put aside reason for faith. In his interview with Rebecca Cusey, Carnahan said he wanted to deal with “the contradictions that exist in all of us at times in reference to God or to spirituality or to religion in general. There’s a duality of a guy calling on God: ‘Where are you when I need you?’ and then at the same time ‘God helps those who help themselves.’” Until Ottway was ready to make a choice and to live (or die) by that choice, he would continue to be frustrated by uncertainty. His leap to faith was to make a choice.
In The Grey, Carnahan created an allegory that confronts human mortality and the search for meaning. Diaz found meaning by achieving solidarity to the group. This led to his selfless sacrifice. Ottway found meaning by embracing the mystery of faith, by choosing to fearlessly fight for life rather than passively allowing death to stalk him. Both men needed each other to find this meaning. Diaz needed Ottway’s guidance to find balanced masculinity in admitting weakness and frailty. Ottway needed Diaz and the other survivors to give him a purpose and remember how to fight. In the end, by not providing a clear resolution, The Grey forces audience members to wrestle with the ending, to ask what they believed happened, and to reflect on how they understand meaning and purpose in their own lives. Ottway’s journey in The Grey has been their journey all along.
“Camus.” In Our Time. Narr. Melvyn Bragg. BBC Radio 4, 3 Jan. 2008. BBC.co.uk. Web. 3 June 2013.
Cusey, Rebecca. “Interview: Director Joe Carnahan on God and Spirituality in Thriller The Grey.” Patheos.com. 23 Jan. 2012. Web. 2 June 2013.
“Deleted Scenes.” The Grey. Dir. Joe Carnahan. Universal, 2012. DVD.
“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.
Wallace, Lewis. “Survival Flick The Grey Is a Tear-Jerker for Tough Guys.” Wired. Jan. 2012. Web. 2 Jun. 2012.