Thoughts on ‘The Grey’

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Sit!...Lie down!

Yesterday we saw The Grey at the cinema. Before the film, I had high expectations; Liam Neeson, given his recent blockbusting successes with Taken and Unknown, surely has his pick of projects to choose from so his mere presence in the lead role, I thought, bode well for the quality of the movie. In addition, his two most recent films have shown how his imposing yet restrained and thoughtful screen presence can be harnessed to create modern action heroes, of the type who fight almost exclusively in short Krav Maga style bursts of fury and can drive a flat tired Mini Cooper through the eye of a needle, with considerable more depth, warmth and gravitas than anyone else playing those types of roles today.

The Grey, however, whilst certainly giving Neeson space to flex his action man chops, is a decidedly different type of action movie from Taken and Unknown. On reflection, the film actually succeeds at defying both the expectations of the action-movie formula suggested by the ‘Neeson versus the wolves’ advertising campaign, and the survivor movie formula suggested by the plane crashing in the wilderness element of the plot. If Taken is a wolf and Alive is a German Shepherd then The Grey is a surprisingly beautiful Husky: a more than capable cross breed of a film. The film is also beautifully shot, conveying both the awe-inspiring splendour of the Alaskan wilderness (although the film was shot mainly in Canada, I believe) and the sheer pitiless terror to be found in the same vistas.

Satisfying moments of action and peril then, are certainly present; the plot, the actors, the setting and, with a particularly unsettling alacrity, the wolves all deliver these. In one sequence, as characters climbed over a chasm on a hastily constructed improvised rope, I could almost sense everyone in the cinema holding their breath and inching forward in their seats because of the tension. The film was lifted in my opinion though by its philosophical pretensions and how well these were integrated into the whole. There was a deftness of touch which, whilst preventing the film from becoming maudlin or puncturing the tension, nudged questions concerning the meaning and purpose of life into the foreground.

Whilst not offering simple answers to such questions, the film, in my opinion, certainly comes down on the side of there being a real and significant importance to human actions, thoughts and emotions. The feeling which resonated with me powerfully afterwards was that these men mattered, that even whilst beaten and bruised unrecognisable; whilst dying with a nervous and suprised look on their filthy faces; whilst unconscious and insensible; whilst struggling weakly and pathetically in the jaws of a superior predator or, most certainly, whilst standing their ground in defiance and clinging to the smallest of hopes: their actions in the here and now, to paraphrase another film, echoed in eternity. The importance of maintaining respect for the dead is also a prominent theme, never more so than when Neeson’s character rages, with disregard for his own safety, at a wolf defiling the exposed body of a dead airline stewardess.

The film is clear too about the type of people most likely to be making the most pleasing echoes in the eternal caverns outside this mortal plane; all the characters are described in the sonorous opening monologue as ‘men not fit for mankind’ but by the end of the movie only one, the willful outsider who did not show an appreciation for love in either his present or his past, is portrayed as facing death with hopeless uncertainty.

As a final thought, the poem recited by Neeson’s character worked extremely well thematically and reminded me of the final verse of Longfellow’s ‘A Psalm of Life’:

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.

What was the last movie you saw with scary wolves in it that also imparted an appreciation of poetry and had you gripping the arms of the cinema chair?

Verdict: Get it seen.

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8 thoughts on “Thoughts on ‘The Grey’

  1. kinseltown says:

    I do agree the cinematography was very well shot

  2. Lucas says:

    It also seemed to me that the poem carried the film.
    But how are we to understand how it does so? I’m not very good with poetry — little help?

    • ‘Once more into the fray.
      Into the last good fight I’ll ever know.
      Live or die on this day.
      Live or die on this day.’

      Well Lucas, poetry, even more than film, is open to interpretation so I can only ever give you my interpretation but in this case I do think it’s pretty clear what the filmmakers were trying to convey.

      Ottway’s poem is introduced early on in the film around the same time he is contemplating suicide and writing a pretty melancholy letter to his wife, who the audience is led to believe has ended their relationship. At this point the poem, with it’s references to ‘the last good fight’ and living and dying firmly directs the audience towards the theme of mortality.

      At the end of the movie, after we’ve seen the deaths of the characters and been granted some insight into what made them who they were, the poem works in other ways. Firstly, it’s a fantastic battle-cry; as Ottway gets ready to fight for his life it’s as though he gets himself pumped for the confrontation by recalling the final two lines of the poem. Secondly, it ties in with the idea that family and loved ones shape who we are; remember that it was Ottway’s father, with whom he shared a troubled relationship, who wrote the poem.

      Lastly, the poem, much like ‘The Psalm of Life’ which I quote in the article, seems to extol the values of living in the present, facing up to trials and not shying away from the ‘great fight’ (whatever you may find that to be). It is also a very purposeful poem and suggests to me that there is real value and purpose in human action. These were all ideas which permeated the movie in different ways so it was fitting to end it with the poem and in my experience it really brought the ’emotional score’ of the film to a strong crescendo.

      My fiancee commented that it’s the type of film that, if she wasn’t watching in the cinema, she’d be crying at. I think that sums its impact up well.

  3. Basho says:

    **********SPOILERS!********* My take on the film was that the whole thing was imagined. Liam was on the IV not his wife. He died and the “crash” was purgatory. Hense, he knew what dying was like, the wolves acting the way they did (which is not how wolves act at all), the sparse cold dream like backdrop, the strange decisions they kept making, the philosophy, the flashbacks, the shouting at god and the ending being that nobody gets to go home.

    A bit like Jacob’s Lader.

    Regards, Basho

    Reply

    • That’s a very interesting interpretation Basho. I think it fits quite well too. What do you think were the ultimate fates of the characters? Did any of them make it to heaven? Did they all?

      • Basho says:

        Only the main character was “real”. Everything else was either a test or part of his psyche. That is why the wolves were fast, big and so aggressive – they were essentially from his nightmare. It is only at the end, when he finally came to terms with death he was free. This was all subtext, and open to interpretation, but like all good scripts does hold true on a different level than the first-take/original. Another example of a film doing this is BladeRunner, with its subtext of **Spoilers** Deckard also being a Replicant.

      • Basho says:

        That is why the film starts the way it does. With him in the bar with the voice over saying “he is where he deserves”. This is also why he shouts at “god” demanding “proof” – that is surely the final stage before acceptance of his death.

        By the way, I’m a Daoist! So I don’t believe in heaven.

  4. There’s a lot in your interpretation I would disagree with Bosho, but it’s a bold interpretation nonetheless and holds some water. It strikes me that ‘The Grey’ seems to be resonating powerfully with viewers approaching from a diversity of philosophical viewpoints. Unusual for such a popular movie.

    You know, I appreciate your spoiler alert for Blade Runner. Unfortunately it’s one of those films about which, despite never having seen it, I posses an awareness of most of the thematic content. I’ve consumed so many subsequent and (for better or worse) derivative movies and computer games that I’m almost certain ‘Blade Runner’ would be a disappointment if I ever were to get around to watching it.

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