I have been to Alaska twice. Both times, I was struck by its vast wilderness, where even the largest human settlements are but specks of urbanity upon an otherwise untouched expanse. On one of those trips, I spotted through a set of powerful binoculars a lone grey wolf running across a valley. It was magnificent to see, but I couldn’t overlook that I was watching it from far away, within the the safety of a bus. Had I been standing outside with no shelter nearby, it would have felt different. Had I been close enough for the wolf to look back at me, it would have felt very different. We tend to forget is that we are still animals, despite our civilization and technology. We are predators, yes. But we are also prey in a harsh and cruel world, filled with unforgiving environments and starving creatures that are going to do whatever it takes to survive. And we are reminded of relentlessly of that truth in the outstanding survival drama, The Grey.
The story takes place in Alaska, where John Ottway works as a hunter defending oil drilling encampments from hostile wildlife, mainly wolves. Ottway is secretly despondent and suicidal for reasons not readily apparent, but he hides it from the oil workers he protects. As one of his jobs comes to a close, he and his colleagues are flying back home when their plane breaks apart in mid-air, and crashes, killing all on board except for Ottway and several other workers. Ottway quickly asserts himself as the group leader, possessing both the survival skills and the level head needed for a situation this dire. And it’s a good thing he does, because the survivors are quickly beset by a large pack of grey wolves that have decided to make a meal out of these interloping humans. One by one, the survivors inevitably fall in a calculus that Ottway knows only too well. The humans are outnumbered and insufficiently armed. The wolves will never stop. And there is no help coming in any way, shape or form. They are on their own, either watched over by an uncaring deity, facing a world with no higher power, or abandoned to a larger plan to which they are not privy. Most of them will die in a futile struggle to stay alive. For Ottway, the struggle is especially pointed, for he keeps coming back to memories of his wife, and the more we see him struggle to stay alive, the more we wonder what is driving he who was so ready to take his own life at the beginning of the story.
It is unusual for a movie this bleak to be this good, but The Grey works especially well as a story of people forced to make amends with their own limitations in the face of utterly unsympathetic conditions. This is a particularly interesting movie in part because of Liam Neeson’s outstanding performance in it. Not long before production began, Neeson lost his wife, Natasha Richardson, in a skiing accident. Director Joe Carnahan encouraged Neeson to channel his grief in this particular performance, but one imagines an actor of Neeson’s caliber would need no such encouragement. There is a rawness in the way Ottway speaks with his absent wife that evokes the kind of heartache that only someone who has suffered the loss of a beloved partner can possibly know. As Ottway searches for strength both for himself and his fellows, he speaks to powers beyond himself in a way that seems to penetrate the screen.
This is a tough movie to watch, mainly because of just how harshly it treats its characters. Unlike certain horror movies, where we are somehow meant to gain entertainment from the suffering of others, in The Grey, each subsequent loss of one of the survivors concentrates the emotional quotient in how much we want someone, anyone, to make it through this fictional ordeal. Each survivor death is tougher than the last one to watch, whether they are devoured by wolves, frozen, fall from a great height, or any other grim fate. Each of these survivors are written well enough and played well enough that we see them as individuals with backstories and something worth returning to back in the world. Each one of them will become a tragic story in somebody’s family, and The Grey never lets us forget that. To the wolves, these people might simply be more food. But to us in the audience, they could all be the person sitting next to us. The only thing that separates us from them is a lack of cruel circumstance.
As we watch The Grey, we do not care that wolves generally don’t behave so monstrously in the wild; the movie draws us in so deeply that we forget what we know of real wolves and focus entirely on these wolves, which serve as that which our primordial ancestors feared when they warned each other not to go out in the dark, or venture into the woods alone. The pack is a metaphor for the wilderness itself, picking off those who stray too far from camp, fall behind the pack, or become too sick or injured or weak to fend for themselves. But not all of the survivors go so quietly, and when we finally see Ottway turn and fight the pack’s alpha one on one, we see a man’s peace with both living and dying come together in a moment of elemental humanity. Ottway’s courage and readiness is a moment of truth that reminds us that we are all going to die. Some of us get the luxury of choosing how, but most never do. It’s up to us to make sure we live in such a way that when that final moment comes for us, however it comes for us, we are just as ready to die as we are to survive.