Most people go into The Grey with spoilers in mind. I didn't. I got lucky. Somehow, I managed to avoid any and all trailers for this film. I only knew Liam Neeson Fights Wolves. I had also heard the film "sucked" and that the wolves didn't look realistic. I knew nothing else.
This is a good way to go into a film, especially this film. If you haven't seen it before, and your taste resembles my taste even remotely (do you enjoy, say, Gears of War and An American Werewolf in London?), and that paragraph of info was all that you had, go watch The Grey. Stop reading here. Or, alternately, don't watch the film and keep reading, but assume you'll be spoiled and that you may not enjoy the film as much because of it if you do decide to watch it.
About ten minutes before The Grey ended, my SO turned to me and our two friends on the couch and said, "Wait, we haven't even gotten to the bottles yet."
"Damn it," I hollered. "No spoilers!"
"Okay, okay," he countered, "I won't say what the bottles are!"
Everyone else knew about "the bottles" because everyone else had seen the trailer. Thank goodness, I hadn't -- I could enjoy the film's final scene as the intense climax that it deserved to be.
For reasons unknown to me, the final scene of The Grey made it into the trailer. In that final scene, Liam Neeson breaks three airplane-sized mini-bottles, straps them between his knuckles, and prepares to fist-fight a wolf. He never gets to the fist fight, or at least, we in the audience don't get to see it. The film cuts to black right after we see Neeson's determined grimace. It's the final scene of the film and they put that in the trailer.
This bizarre PR choice seems a fitting representation of the extent to which The Grey doomed itself right out of the gate. I thought, and I'm guessing many other people thought, that The Grey would be a campy action romp.
All four of us on the couch exclaimed in shock throughout this film about the extent to which it countered our expectations. In the past, we've enjoyed lampooning Captain America, Hellboy, the Tintin animated series, and similar Netflix streaming campy delights. Liam Neeson Fights Wolves was next in the queue. We thought it'd fit our usual movie night theme.
The four of us fancy ourselves a regular MST3K foursome, during these movie nights. We talk frequently during movies, with the intent to make the rest of the group laugh as much as possible. We unabashedly talk over dialogue; we ignore the plot; we can't keep up with character names and we don't even care.
This time? We watched almost the entirety of The Grey in hushed, terrified silence. Near the end, one of my friends pointed out how quiet we had been. We all agreed. Then, we continued watching in silence.
The Grey is not a funny movie. It is not even an action movie. It is, in spite of its bizarre fake-looking wolves, a terrifying, suspenseful, gut-shaking ride. No -- it's not even a ride, it's not a roller coaster. It's a crawl. An aching, gasping crawl.
The Grey does not bill itself as science fiction or fantasy, but it ought to. The fictive portrayal of wolves in the film could only be classed as magical realism. These are not real wolves. They do not behave as real wolves would. They behave, more or less, like human beings who just so happen to look like wolves.
The wolves represent a handful of themes within the structure of the film; at the beginning, they serve as a thin explanation for Neeson's presence. The Grey begins with Liam Neeson moving to Alaska to join a drilling team. Neeson's job? To kill any wolves that may pose a threat to the town. The wolves thus provide an excuse for Neeson to have a gun, which he uses almost immediately. His first action with the gun is to put it in his own mouth.
Liam Neeson is suicidal, but we don't know much more about him or his life before this moment. We don't know why he chose to move to this place, which he distinguishes in voice-over as having "no women." We also don't yet know why he keeps having flashbacks to a beautiful woman's face illuminated by crisp white bed-sheets. Our hero has started at the bottom. He can go nowhere but up from here. Right?
And up he goes, into a plane.
The plane crashes.
As soon as the plane in the film started shaking, I said aloud, "Whoa, what if it really does crash?" Cue my friends staring at me in disbelief. It's almost impossible, nowadays, to engage with media without having heard a recap of the entire first act beforehand.
I felt glued to every moment of this film. My friends didn't get to feel quite the same stomach-dropping, nail-biting apprehension that I did, although they did get some. After all, none of us knew going in that absolutely everyone in this film would die. Everyone. Everyone.
By the end, we thought at least Liam Neeson would live to tell his tale. He doesn't. I've seen other interpretations of the end of the film that suggest that Neeson's character survives the final fight. Given what the movie's shown us up to that point, with regard to what the magical-realism-wolves are capable of, I don't see how that's possible. I believe with complete certainty that The Grey ends in his death.
It's fitting, then, that the film's consistent themes are masculinity, homosocial power dynamics, atheism, fear, anxiety, survival, and suicide. Near the end of the film, Liam Neeson's character cites a poem written by his alcoholic father (who, from what little we know of him, seems to have suffered from depression, just as Liam Neeson's character does):
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.
The poem (and by extension, the film) equates "living" and "dying". For Neeson's character, these two may as well be the same. Living takes the same amount of courage as dying, for him. Both feel impossible. It's an apt summary of depression. Neeson takes the gun out of his mouth at the beginning of the film because he sees a wolf running towards camp; he shoots the wolf instead of himself. But the end result of the film remains the same. He has only delayed the inevitable.
I've seen enough films (and games, and books) that portray action, power, and masculinity to know that portraying your central hero as a suicidal and depressed man right out of the gate, and then refusing to back down from that portrayal throughout the film, while also determinedly portraying him as a bad-ass ... well, that's something different, let's put it that way. In writing about Samus Aran recently, I've been thinking a lot about the concept of a "strong character" who also deals with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, high-stress military situations or survival situations, or all of the above. Samus being a woman makes the portrayal of emotions feel "safer" for most writers, since we're socialized to see women having feelings as more acceptable. In Liam Neeson's case, it's a risk to portray him as living in fear while also being a bad-ass; it's a risk because it's hard to sell an American audience on this idea. America's portrayals of masculinity could use a shake-up when it comes to portraying "strong" men.
In The Grey, suicide and depression are not necessarily presented as states of weakness so much as states of continual, frenzied fighting. You fight your own worst enemy every day: yourself. You only stop when you need to protect others; protecting others provides a distraction from the true fight with your own self, which never ends, until death. Liam Neeson is portrayed here as a bad-ass not only because he knows a lot about the magical-realism-wolves that exist within this universe, but also because he fights against himself every damn day.
He also isn't ashamed of his own psyche. Although he gets cagey about admitting to his attempted suicide, he does unabashedly admit to being "afraid". One of the other men in the surviving party makes a big show of saying he is "not afraid" of the wolves, but Liam Neeson calls him out, asserting instead that admitting your fear does not necessarily mean admitting weakness or conceding to no longer survive. You must instead use your own fear. You re-purpose your fear into power.
The film continues to play with this concept, never seeming to settle on a lesson, instead allowing the audience to take away what pieces they want. The machismo-obsessed character in question dies from a voluntary wolf attack; he collapses on the ground from exhaustion and waits, for an unknown amount of time, for the wolves to find him. His last line? "I'm not afraid."
Meanwhile, Liam Neeson's character continues trekking unabated. Eventually, Neeson begins to shout at the sky, at God, to give him a sign. We know from earlier in the film that Neeson's character does not believe in God, although some of his late companions did. Believing in God or not does not seem to have altered anyone's fate. Meanwhile, Neeson's character has a history with suicide attempts, as we also have seen. But there's a difference between killing yourself on your own terms and being killed by a wolf in the middle of nowhere.
The "middle of nowhere" aspect, particularly with regard to identity, also distinguishes Neeson's character from the rest of the men present. Shortly after the plane crash, Neeson stops another man from taking money from dead people's wallets. For whatever reason, Neeson sees this as immoral; it's not clear to me why that would be. Money -- that is to say, ownership of material objects -- has no significance here beyond "honor". In fact, all structures of power have become meaningless; the rest of the men eventually grow to honor Neeson as a de facto leader simply because he's the most charming and he knows the most about how to kill wolves (the former, frankly, seems to be more the reason than the latter).
Neeson's reprimand against "taking billfolds" becomes ironic moments later, as Neeson soon begins to collect every man's billfold nigh-obsessively upon their death. He's not taking the wallets for the cash, though; he just wants the men's identification. At first, my friends as I mocked Neeson's billford hoarding. One of my friends hypothesized that the film would end with Neeson returning each of the billfolds to all of the off-screen female characters tangentially referred to by the dead men in the film. The film's actual end, however, is far more chilling.
In his final moments, Neeson takes out all of the billfolds he has collected, looks at each of the pictures within them, and creates a small cairn. Given how hikers typically use cairns (a hiker makes a stack of stones as a landmark, and future hikers add a stone if they see it), Neeson's creation of a cairn of dead men's wallets at the site of a wolf den seems ominous. The only people who can add to this cairn are people who are about to die, because this is a cairn at a magical wolf den.
For whatever reason, the circle of wolves -- in particular, the Alpha Wolf -- wait patiently for Liam Neeson to finish creating this cairn and put bottles between his fingers before attacking. Magical realism wolves, see. They have honor.
In this moment, the audience also learns some further detail about Neeson's flashbacks to the woman's face and the white sheets. We have seen Liam Neeson composing a letter to someone earlier in the film; presumably the letter was meant for this woman. Before the film ends, he looks at this letter once more. We see a flashback to her again; we see that she is in a hospital bed; she says "don't be afraid." We in the audience can assume that she has died, which explains Liam Neeson's relocation to Alaska.
As for whether Liam Neeson manages to not be afraid in his final moments, or instead uses his fear to keep fighting the wolf with bottles until he dies ... well, that we don't know. But the film makes an interesting choice by re-positioning "don't be afraid" as a line said, finally, by a woman. At first, I had interpreted the line as a representation of traditional toxic machismo: deny your feelings and suffer for it. By the film's end, we get a more nuanced portrayal of humans' innate fear of death. It's a less explicitly gendered portrayal, as well.
Each of the other male characters in the film has a woman that they remember. For Machismo-Obsessed Guy, it's a prostitute who gave him an STD; he still remembers her fondly regardless. For another man, it's his sister, who died long ago. For another, it's a young daughter. (Both the dead sister and the daughter show up in hallucinations, one of which the audience gets to see as well.)
Neeson's character has this estranged lover who, until the end of the film, we assume to be alive, because why wouldn't she be? Once we know she likely isn't alive, however, we might assume he has nothing to live for. But, some of these men had other people in their lives who were alive, as Liam Neeson's flip through the billfolds reveals. Some men believed in God; some didn't. Some had families and friends; some didn't. Some faced death with fear; some didn't. But everyone still died.
At first, I felt discomfited by the portrayal of women in the film as distant feminine nurturers, but by the film's end, I felt differently, mostly because I was impressed by the film's nuanced portrayal of masculinity and homosocial power dynamics. The rest of the men look up to Liam Neeson and follow him in their attempt to escape the wolves. The wolves want to protect their den, but the humans have no idea where the den is. The humans don't want to go to the den, let alone attack it. The humans just want to go home. The wolves have no way of knowing this, however. Due to impressively bad luck, the humans venture closer and closer to the den. By the end of the film, Neeson reaches the den -- again, completely by accident.
It almost sounds like a situation comedy. The men want nothing more than to get away from the wolf den, which houses the "women and children" of the wolf pack. The wolves also want this. Everyone wants the same thing. But no one can communicate. Also, in this film, the wolves are so much more powerful than the humans that it's laughable. Ordinarily, human beings end up winning the day against mysterious creatures, especially in masculine power fantasy films. The Grey lets the wolves win in a landslide.
What's more -- although the film does not do a good job of making this point clear -- the wolves are very clearly in the right. The humans arrive in a terrifying metal bird that crashes onto the wolves' land and explodes into fire. The humans manage to kill one wolf and they eat it. The humans then continue to venture closer and closer to the wolves' den. Why, exactly, do the humans deserve to live, according to the wolves' perspective?
Of course, the portrayal of wolves here makes no sense according to what we actually know about wolves, which is why I describe these wolves as fictional, magical realist representations. The wolves could represent the inevitability of death, but they also represent a sort of parallel-universe example of how homosocial groupings normally work in a traditional action film. We see Liam Neeson becoming the Alpha in his group; eventually, he must fight the Alpha of the other group. And, as in most action movies, the Wolf Alpha fights for his family, for his women and children. It's just that in this movie, the Wolf Alpha is positioned as the bad guy, and the ragtag group of terrified human men? Our heroes.
But, "good guys" and "bad guys" don't get strictly codified here. No one is "bad"; everyone just has rotten luck, wolves and humans both. It seems a dismal summary of how life and death work in the real world, as well as an unusual commentary on how narratives work in other action films where some of (or at least one of) the heroes survive.
Although the film makes some unusual missteps -- re-using shots beyond what's strictly necessary to make a point, lingering on repetitive dialogue, over-using Liam Neeson's voice-over to provide exposition rather than finding other ways to show us what's gone on, and taking a long time to get going during the first act -- I still got what I wanted out of The Grey. I like to think, and The Grey made me think a lot.
That said, I'm not sure I fully understand the direction behind The Grey. Not only did the film's director Joe Carnahan use actual wolf carcasses in the film, he also told the cast to eat the wolf's meat (the characters also do this in the film). Carnahan similarly instructed Liam Neeson to use his feelings about his real wife's death to fuel his performance. Although I enjoyed the acting in this film, I'm not sure that this extensive insisting on Method Acting benefited anyone here.
Also, although it seems laughable that anyone would watch this movie and think that wolves are as intelligent and organized and revenge-driven as this film claims, I guarantee that some people wondered. I don't agree with the director's decision to use real wolf carcasses (although considering how bad the fake [CGI? puppet?] wolves look in the film, I can understand his motivation). I think the film also made a mistake in not specifying via a preliminary title card that the wolves' behavior in the film does not reflect reality, but the filmmakers did make efforts after the fact to clarify this.
Even though I have reservations about the film's direction behind the scenes, the result on screen has a lot more going for it than other films of what I'll call the Anxious Masculinity Genre (compare this to, say, Neeson's Taken).
I'd like to see more stories that navigate portraying depression and suicide and "being a bad-ass" without romanticizing, oversimplifying, or rose-coloring. These are the stories that I tend to connect with the most, and even though this story is about a bunch of men, I still could find myself in it. As I said, its themes tie in a bit to my recent Samus Aran essay. I like to see stories like this with women at the center of them, but in general I like it when films acknowledge that these problems lack gender and instead embody any human's (and, perhaps, any animal's) experience. We need to redefine how we see "bad-ass," how we see "strong characters," and also how we see gender. I'm not sure The Grey goes far enough, but it does subvert expectations of male emotions and personal power in ways that I didn't expect, and for that, I commend it.