Originally I was going to have a top ten of the year, but then decided a top twelve was more fun because that way I could devise my own version of The Twelve Days of Christmas (and let’s not forget, the only reason for lists like this is pure enjoyment). Early in 2012 I saw a film that I expected would be in my top ten of the year, and it nearly was. Being strict, it was squeezed out, but when I expanded the list to twelve, it slipped back in.
This re-entry, as it were, is The Grey, Joe Carnahan’s surprisingly grim follow-up to The A-Team. Carnahan’s debut, Narc, was an extremely gritty, nasty, visceral cop thriller, with stellar performances from Jason Patric and Ray Liotta. Afterwards, Carnahan somewhat drifted with Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team, a fairly light action comedy. In The Grey, Carnahan does much the same with the actual wilderness as he did with the urban jungle in Narc. Both environments are presented as cold, bleak and uncaring, with small acts of compassion, loyalty and humanity the only bulwark against unmitigated savagery. Savagery in The Grey takes many forms, from the misery that haunts the protagonist Ottway (Liam Neeson), to the bleak white wilderness in which the oil rig workers operate, and the world beyond which seems to have sentenced them to this life. A plane crash into the tundra demonstrates nature’s indifference towards the lives of the men killed or marooned, which then manifests physically as the relentless wolves that pursue them.
Animals in films rarely represent animals themselves. The shark in Jaws represents the consuming maw of the sea; bats in Batman Begins represent the central character’s fear; the lions in The Ghost and the Darkness represent the untamed wilderness of Africa; even the horses in Seabiscuit and War Horse represent hope and courage in the face of adversity, the Great Depression in the former and World War I in the latter. Films which present savage beasts preying on humans do provoke criticism, accusations of misrepresentation and even presenting negative views of animals which leads to their persecution. This criticism gives films more credit than they are due – wolves, lions, sharks and bats were being exterminated long before they appeared in movies. I actually avoided watching Jaws for a long time because I thought it had a damaging effect upon people’s attitudes towards sharks, then realised that me seeing a film or not was completely irrelevant to shark conservation. Besides, the demand for shark fin soup is a far greater danger to these creatures.
There are very few accounts of wolves attacking human beings, but the wolves in The Grey are not there to serve as accurate portrayals of wolves. If you want that, there are plenty of nature documentaries. Anybody who believes cinematic representation to be accurate should reconsider that position. Rather, these wolves serve as the main manifestation of nature’s savagery. The men struggle to escape but the wolves are relentless, active pursuers by day and shadowy forms beyond the firelight at night. Their constant presence, either visibly or audibly, maintains a malevolence that constantly threatens the men. Nor are they the only threat, as sheer drops, jagged tree branches and raging torrents also endanger the men, as well as exhaustion, starvation and the elements themselves. In possibly the film’s most intense scene, the men have almost reached the tree line and comparative safety, as the wolves pursue them through a blizzard. One of the party is caught and Ottway turns back to help him. Ottway’s progress is hampered by deep snow, presented in a long take shot over Ottway’s shoulder, which tilts down as he sinks into the snow, then up as he rises to see his friend being savaged, tilts down again as he sinks on his next step. The duration of the shot expresses Ottway’s agonisingly slow progress, communicating his helplessness to the viewer and allowing us to share in the horror of simply being too far away and too slow moving to help.
This scene, in which the cinematography’s close association with the protagonist expresses his physical and emotional distress, encapsulates the film as a whole. It is a bleak, relentless tale of one’s insignificance within nature, and the attitude taken towards one’s confrontation with death. I have published on existentialism in film, and The Grey is an excellent dramatization of this philosophy. Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote “When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you”. The Grey portrays both directions of the abyssall gaze, as Ottway begins the film, in his own words, “at the end of the world”. Although the peril he encounters gives him reason to live, he must work hard to maintain his resolve in the face of extraordinary adversity. One of the other men in his party chooses to accept death, regarding the majestic beauty of the northern wilderness as a fitting place to die, when the best case alternative is returning to an oil rig. The film performs a fine job of portraying contrasting existential attitudes: both the will to live, and the will to die. It is this philosophical dimension that raises The Grey above being a simple survival tale, as it explores in intriguing depth the existential questions of survival.