Perhaps it’s just the pattern Liam Neeson‘s established with his last few action thrillers—films like Unknown and Taken, where he’s a middle-aged man driven by revenge and/or the urge to save his family in killing as many gun-toting men as possible in ninety minutes—but if there’s something I didn’t expect from The Grey, which promised Neeson going through a Predator-like plot where he and his compatriots are assailed and picked off by creatures beyond their comprehension, it was a theological discussion about the absence of God, or at least a God who cares.
Neeson plays John Ottway, a troubled man whose job is to protect the men hired to do work on arctic pipelines from the wolves who stalk the land. It’s obvious looking at him among these rough men, who drink and brawl and whore, that Ottway carries a massive guilt, an incredible grief. It’s clear that, when he leaves the bar, rifle slung across his back, he’s doing so to end his life. Ottway kneels down in the snow, buts the rifle’s barrel into his mouth, but can’t bring himself to shoot. The next day he’s on the plane with the unsavory crew hired to work in the arctic. The plane goes down, and Ottway is one of a small band of survivors left in the middle of an empty, threatening snowscape.
Immediately, Ottway becomes a survivalist. This is good for the group, because left to their own devices, men like Diaz (Frank Grillo) and Talget (Dermot Mulroney) wouldn’t stand a chance, divided by background and personality. Not that they think Ottway is the best man for the job, but at least he knows about wolves, and at least he’s interested in surviving. So they trudge across the snow hoping to find shelter, to at least get far away enough from the wolf den that they’re no longer an issue. Infighting and exposure are also a source of problems for the group, who dwindle in number not knowing if they’re closer to their goal, not knowing how many things lurk beyond their vision, poised to attack.
Thankfully, the wolves don’t act as a kind of convenient metaphor, they’re no signpost, no means to the film’s message. They’re a force of nature, doing what they do because, hey, that’s how they are. Because The Grey has no villain, the film avoids the pratfall where the group rises above evil, instead becoming a show of how desperate or crazed or lonely human beings can find themselves. Diaz, for example, sees the moment where he cuts off a slain wolf’s head to chuck it back into the forest as revenge for the men who’ve died. The other men, who see the killing as a fact of their continued survival, look on as though Diaz were deranged. Maybe he is. Or maybe he’s just working out his frustrations. All of the men stranded out there have issues to deal with. The wolves just put things in perspective real quick.
The lack of a specific villain also allows director and co-writer Joe Carnahan to get creative. Instead of relying on the wolves as a jump scare or singular cause of death, the men are faced with decisions that may help or hinder their progress: Do they create a rope bridge to cross a chasm? Do they follow a river? Do they know where they’re going? Do they drink all the alcohol, or do they save some for later? Do any of their decisions matter, or are they merely prolonging the agony? These questions, and the way they’re answered, have a profound impact on Ottway and his crew’s ability to survive.
And then there’s the question about God. Not all of the men on the airplane are as harsh or bitter as it would seem. Some of them, in fact, are pretty spiritual. Talget, for example, wishes to say a prayer for the men who had the good fortune to die in the crash. He believes that the group survived for a reason, that their trek across the wilderness was ordained and purposeful, even if that purpose isn’t clear. Talget has a daughter at home, who he promised to see again. Maybe that’s what this trek is about, making those left alive more appreciative of what they have, despite the three men the film comes to focus on having very little to live for, not like the oil executives who’ll be minorly inconvenienced by the crash. Talget has family. Diaz has freedom.
Ottway, though, appears to have less than even these men. His wife (Anne Openshaw) is dead and he is days removed from trying to end his own life. He does not believe in God, grounds himself in reality. His reality is quite dire, indeed. There’s him, the group, the weather, and the wolves. Benevolent or not, few gods would hurl their creation into such a horrible fray. Few men would survive as long as Ottway, who doesn’t believe in fate but will meet one anyway. The debate is left to be resolved by the viewer, but one has to wonder why he persists when the situation is admittedly so hopeless. Perhaps Ottway carries on hoping for an honorable way to die. Maybe giving up would dishonor his wife. Could be, but the movie draws a pretty distinct line between the wolves and Ottway. They kill because they need to, because that’s their purpose. Ottway survives because he, too, feels need. In the wolves, he finds purpose.
The Grey. Directed by Joe Carnahan. With Liam Neeson (Ottway), Frank Grillo (Diaz), Dermot Mulroney (Talget), Dallas Roberts (Hendrick), Joe Anderson (Flannery), and Anne Openshaw (Ottway’s Wife). Released January 27, 2012, by Open Road Films.