The existential crisis, or, Hungry like the wolf

Sometimes to even live is an act of courage.
— Seneca

The survival instinct is an interesting one. In the most extreme of circumstances — that is, in its purest form — it is without logic. It is animal. Survive to survive, and for no other reason. In Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, seven men are tested. Their circumstances are most certainly extreme, and along the way a few of these men opt out on their own terms. Most are not so lucky. One is not so resigned.

When we first see Ottway (played with a quiet intensity that can only describe as “Neeson-esque” by one, Mr. Liam Neeson) he has a gun in his mouth. The look in his eye implies that his mind and body are not operating within the same space. He is thinking of his wife. She tells him not to be afraid. Later, surrounded by the sounds of growling wolves, he tells one of his fellow plane crash survivors that they’d be a fool not to be afraid. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Ottway works at a remote oil outpost with a decent-sized group of men and women he describes as being “unfit” for society. His job is to protect these people by keeping the wolves surrounding the area at bay, perched atop a building with no company other than his sniper rifle. Left alone with his thoughts, he seems to suffer from the kind of internalized social bluntness that comes with that sort of job, an outcast amongst outcasts. None of that matters when the plane goes down.

Soon, the seven survivors find their scheduled leave promptly unscheduled as they awaken in a snow-covered haze. It is here in the wild, cold and hopeless, that Ottway springs into action. First, he guides a man towards death. He tells him “not to be afraid.” He tells him to “let it wash over him.” He describes the process as though he’s been there before. He then moves on to surveying their surroundings. It turns out that they’re full of hungry, aggressive wolves. As if matters needed to be made worse?

The men follow him because he seems to know what he’s doing, and he does, if only to a certain degree. He is familiar with wolf behavior, but mostly in theory. Besides, it is not his wolf expertise that makes him the de facto leader; it is his relentless desire to survive. And while the men cling to home and the things that they stand to lose, Ottway seems to want to survive only to prove to himself that he can.

The group is inevitably thinned. One by one they go, victims of the weather, the wolves and their own hopelessness. Along the way we learn just enough about them to feel sad about it, but not enough to linger for too long.

Then, there is the matter of the wolves.

Sometimes they look good, sometimes not so much. They are mostly, if not all, CG. An interesting choice, especially in context of the primary complaint that I’ve seen lodged against this film: The wolves do not behave like real wolves. Perhaps they are not supposed to? Maybe they are not meant to be “real” wolves? Maybe they are merely the cold, unrelenting representation of nature’s indifference? Maybe it was just cheaper to use CG wolves? Either way, they are most effective when growling just off-camera, their eyes glowing hungrily in the dark. And Carnahan is wise to frame many shots with just enough negative space to make us think that at any moment it could be occupied by one of the leaping, ravenous beasts. We have been trained by monster movies.

In the end it is Ottway, alone. No surprise. Early on in the film he insists that the men gather the wallets of the fallen for the families, like dog tags. Now, sitting on the forest floor he removes them from his backpack, one by one, and stacks them nearly on top of each other. He remembers his wife lying in a hospital bed. “Don’t be afraid.” He remembers a poem his father had framed in his childhood home:

 Once more into the fray, into the last fight I’ll ever know. Live or die on this day. Live or die on this day.

As he glances around him and sees the piles of antlers and various bones he realizes that he has wandered into the wolves’ den. The alpha wolf walks towards him. He gathers himself up, straps weapons to his hands, and lunges forward. Some will be frustrated by the black screen that follows that moment. Others will not. There is a short scene after the credits have finished rolling that may or may not provide satisfaction. For me, it’s completely unnecessary because one can only fight for so long, and the fight is the whole point.

Kevin Mattison is co-editor of The Idler, and a filmmaker and videographer. You can follow him on Twitter at @kmmattison.

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