“There are no atheists in foxholes,” as the old saying goes. But what about in wolves’ dens? It’s a question I never knew I had. Just one of many reasons why THE GREY, the new thriller from co-writer/director Joe Carnahan, is such an uncommon and splendid achievement is that it asks (and answers) that question.
I had been sold on this movie from the minute I was made aware that it was to be a survival drama where the great actor Liam Neeson faces off against a pack of hungry wolves. “Herman Melville meets Jack London meets Hemingway meets wolves meets Liam Neeson’s fists.” That movie would have been just fine. But this movie is twice as good. It’s got all the thrills and chills you could hope and expect out of that brilliantly direct premise — but on top of that, THE GREY is one of the more profound, dynamic, and uncompromising illustrations of existentialism I have seen on a movie screen in quite a while. This film goes deep — like “straight to the bone, through the ribcage, all the way through to the soul” deep.
For those of us who have been starving for brutal, bruising, uncompromising American cinema, THE GREY is proof of life.
That was what I had started to write in January 2012. Here’s what I finally wrote about the movie in December for Daily Grindhouse:
THE GREY marked its territory in my number one spot all the way back in January of 2012, and fiercely warded off all comers with teeth bared. I love all the movies in my top ten and there are plenty still which almost made the list, but THE GREY is the one I really took to heart. For one thing, I am ready to go to the mat on the argument that the storytelling and filmmaking in THE GREY is at least as exemplary as any of the year’s more award-friendly critical darlings.
The score by Marc Streitenfeld is gorgeous and heartbreaking. The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi is crisply delineated and winter-clear. The script by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers & Joe Carnahan is perfectly-paced and indelible. And Joe Carnahan’s direction is world-class. I was a huge fan of Carnahan’s movie NARC, and I think his SMOKIN’ ACES and THE A-TEAM, while surely on the cartoony side of the action-movie spectrum, show action chops on par with the best of ‘em. I have been following and enjoying his work for a long time, but THE GREY makes Carnahan a canon filmmaker in my eyes.
I was lucky enough to see THE GREY a month early, so I could watch with fascination as it was received by the public. Considering how thoughtful a film it is, all the simplistic and reductive “Liam Neeson punches wolves!” jokes were almost obscene. Some of the marketing did seem eager to group THE GREY alongside the Liam Neeson action-thrillers of the last few years, and obviously this is a different thing entirely. Interestingly, some religious groups embraced the movie, although I’m not sure it’s saying what they may want it to be saying. And some environmental groups were bothered by the portrayal of the wolves, which is a well-intentioned complaint but misses the point. First of all, Liam Neeson’s character views the wolves above all with a kind of respect. But more importantly: The same way FLIGHT isn’t really about a plane, THE GREY isn’t exactly about the wolves.
Think about the title. Did you look at the wolves in that movie? Didn’t look all that gray to me. They looked almost black. They blended in and out of that night with ease. These aren’t real-world wolves. These are something else. The wolves in THE GREY are an engine, relentlessly forcing the sands through the hourglass. In my reading of the title, “The Grey” refers to that space between existence and non-existence, between the white of snow and the black of death. No, this isn’t a movie about wolves. This is a movie about mortality.
Many fans of the movie have noted how THE GREY structurally resembles a typically horror movie, as the cast of characters are gradually winnowed away, and maybe that’s true, but in that case I’ve never seen a horror movie that treats the ranks of the culled with such care. Most of the characters who die in THE GREY get sent out on a moment of dignity, even grace, or at least as much as can be mustered. (There is one major exception, maybe the most upsetting death in the entire film, but that is the one that prompts the film’s most important emotional moment, so it’s not much of an exception after all.) This is a movie that shows many people dying, yet it is the rare such movie that happens to value life. That is one reason why I am struck where it matters by THE GREY.
There are also personal reasons. I’ve spent the last four years attending more funerals than I wanted to attend in a lifetime. Without any exaggeration and in a relatively short time, I’ve lost half my nearest and dearest. I’ve been living with death. This movie is what that feels like. Wolves and winter – that’s all just visual trappings meant to illustrate an idea. The point is, there may come a time in your life when everybody you know starts dropping like flies at the hands of some relentless cosmic flyswatter, and then what are you gonna do? Pray to God? Good luck there. Worth a try. Maybe He answers your prayers. Maybe He doesn’t answer. Probably he doesn’t answer. Now you’ve got a choice to make. Or maybe there isn’t a choice at all.
“Fuck it. I’ll do it myself.” That isn’t a renunciation. That is, in fact, a profoundly spiritual decision. This movie illustrates that concept so beautifully that if I had the tears to do it, I’d cry them. I thank this movie for existing in 2012, and I thank Joe Carnahan and his cast and crew for braving the cold to make it.
For further reading: