Sometimes, movies are memorable for what they don’t show you, instead masking their intentions in their deception. Six years ago, Joe Carnahan produced a masterpiece with The Grey by resisting the urge to show his full hand at the end of the film.
DISCLAIMER: If you haven’t watched the film, I implore you to stop reading and check it out, because this column will include spoilers and give away pretty much the entire movie. Since it’s been out for roughly 1,900 days, I figure it’s time this film got the deep dive it deserved.
The movie chronicled a group of oil workers traveling on a plane over Alaska who are forced into desperation when their aircraft crashes in the middle of nowhere-and near a territory that a pack of wolves have marked for their own.
A group of guys against a pack of wolves was what the studio wanted you to believe the movie was about, but the juice of this film was the fact that it was never about that particular struggle.
The workers were a true band of lost boys, including Liam Neeson’s Ottway, a born leader who was clearly hiding a dark shade of himself behind a thin cover of fearlessness; Henrick (Dallas Roberts) and Talget (Dermot Mulroney), two family men trying to make an honest living; Diaz (Frank Grillo), an ex-con trying to walk the straight and avoid the criminal urge; and Flannery (Joe Anderson) and Burke (Nonso Anozie), two men unfit for the conditions). An island of misfit toys lost on a strip of Earth where few make it out alive.
The two hour film watches these six men travel across terrain, avoiding the wolves and edging towards safer ground, even if that location doesn’t really exist in several feet of snow, ice, and smothering winds. The characters are picked off one by one, each going in a unique and personal fashion. Carnahan has no desire to choke you out with gore and walk away. He wants you to know who each of these men are before they die, and he succeeds.
For example, when Talget falls through a tree after falling from a rope that was designed to get him from one cliff to another, you see Mulroney’s character dream about his daughter’s hair waving over his face one final time. It’s a sweet final glimpse of a regular guy with big dreams but few demons, who got caught on the one plane ride. The camera pans up as four wolves drag him away.
Anozie’s Burke is another example. The wolves don’t get him; the cold kills him. The thing people forget about in this film is that the cold is as much of a villain as the flesh-seeking wolves. Burke’s brain is literally affected by the sheer cold, because he starts rattling off words about his mom, and the guys have no idea how to help him. They wrap him up, keep him warm, but in the end, the temperature freezes him, destroying everything he had built before that plane ride.
Grillo’s Diaz gets the most beautiful sendoff, which includes the once in a lifetime framing of a shot by Masanobu Takayanagi, whose cinematography was Oscar worthy, but forgotten about due to the film’s release and the Academy’s habit of overlooking “thrillers”. Diaz is the rebel of the group, a man whose past won’t stop tripping up his future. A former criminal who is trying to go straight but can’t quit the shortcut to get ahead or steal (he is rebuffed by Neeson’s Ottway earlier in the film during an attempted robbery).
Near the end of the film, Diaz decides that he has run long enough. He looks into a grand sunset that includes a mountain landscape that he knows his life doesn’t deserve, but a final image he is going to steal on the way out the door before death. Ottway and Henrick let him go, and as the other men continue to their own demise, Diaz sits up against a log, at peace with his end. Diaz says something to the degree of, “look at that. That is all I need.”
Again, Carnahan wants every single death to feel personal and leave a dent, forgoing the easy urge to startle you or perfect a gross out. He aims for the heart, not the gut.
Finally, after Henrick drowns, it’s Ottway and the wolves. And this is where the film became divisive among fans and viewers of the film.
Open Road Films wanted to cash in on the Liam Neeson action train, which was only firing up with 2008’s Taken, so it marketed the film around a climactic battle between Neeson’s character and the alpha wolf. The film was produced on a modest $25 million budget (and ended up tripling it with worldwide receipts), but still, the studio thought it could make some money.
The only problem was Carnahan didn’t include the actual fight in the end, because once again, he wasn’t going for that effect. This wasn’t a classic action thriller; The Grey was a drama disguised as a disaster wilderness thriller. It was so much more than an action adventure film.
Let me talk to you about Ottway before I get into the ending of the film. In the beginning of the film, the man tries to take his own life. A hired hand for his marksman abilities that keeps the wolves in line while the oil workers perform their duties, Ottway is hiding a depression that is slowly overtaking him. You see images of a woman who we later find out is his wife, a woman who marks a happier point in the man’s life. We don’t know if she is dead or merely waiting at home for him, but it is messing Ottway up, and this is where Neeson’s acting talent takes center stage.
You see, long before some stupid kidnappers took his daughter and turned him into a wearier version of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Neeson was known for his dramatic triumphs: Rob Roy, Michael Collins, Les Miserables, and Schindler’s List. He could throw a punch, but he really didn’t have to. As the need for commercial action heroes arose, Neeson went with the tide, because it was more than likely fun and there was instant work. But along the way, people forgot he was an Oscar nominated actor. The Grey showcases that in the final moments of its film.
As Ottway makes it to what seems like a safe zone, he takes out all the wallets that were collected along the way. In the beginning, it was a need to keep the memories of who died cataloged in case the crash site and bodies were found, but there was deeper meaning. Ottway goes through them one by one, looking at the men who have died and the lives that enveloped them before this fateful trip. He saw the families, the smiles, and legacies left behind.
He begins to weep, and not just simply for men dying on his watch. He is sad, because these men had something to live for, something that he didn’t have anymore. And boom, Carnahan lays it on us. As Marc Streitenfeld’s powerful score plays and a poem spoken about earlier in the film, a riff on going into battle one final time plays out in Ottway’s head, we see the medicine bags hanging over the bed of his late wife. Ottway’s wife probably passed away from cancer, and this has been eating away at the man all this time. These men had something to live for that he didn’t anymore, and it wrecks him.
Suddenly, the realization of his surroundings is well-known, as wolves circle him. Ottway has found himself in the wolves’ den, and the trailer for the film starts to play in people’s minds. He puts his wallet on top of the stack, and for the first time in the film, makes a choice to fight for his own life. Ottway chooses to fight to live! He breaks off tiny whiskey bottles and tapes them around his knuckles, and gets into a fighting stance.
One last time, into the fray, into the last fight I’ll ever really know. Ottway lunges at the wolf as the animal growls, and that’s it. Cut to black, Sopranos style. This angered certain people, who felt the marketing pumped up this thriller as one final smackdown contest between Neeson and a wolf. They think they were duped, but in my mind, they weren’t paying attention.
Carnahan didn’t have to show the fight, because The Grey was never about man versus wolf; it was about man versus man. Men, out in the bitter cold, facing down the depravity of their own souls, and trying to survive. How men face their toughest challenge in the brutal elements of mother nature. You can take out the wolves, and there is still a worthy film here. If Carnahan shows the fight, the power of the film is lost and it becomes a disposable action exercise in gore and style. Instead, he went for the heart, and won.
The film was about one man’s journey from suicidal depression to finding the will to live. It was about Ottway finding the urge to fight for his life, and stay in the fight. Through an unlikely experience with strangers stranded in the wilderness with him and a pack of wolves, Ottway found his way back. He rehabbed his soul. That was the onus of The Grey, not a thankless wolf fight.
This film came out on Jan. 27, 2012. Go check it out. I spoiled very little if you appreciate amazing cinematography, excellent direction, powerful storytelling (script was co-written by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, who also wrote the short story the film was based on), and go-for-broke acting.
If you want a thriller with higher hopes, watch The Grey. It’s the masterpiece you’re missing in your life and since it’s dangerously cold outside right now, this is the perfect time to watch it. I promise you leave discussing it and thinking about it for days.
Also, stay for the small gift after the credits roll.
Thanks for reading this extremely long deep-dive article. I need more coffee, maybe something stronger.