Joe Carnahan’s The Grey is the first truly great 2012 release. Which is surprising. I didn’t expect all that much from it, thinking it might just be a typical “angry Liam Neeson” action film. But wow is it more than that.
Ostensibly a “been there done that” narrative (survivors of a plane crash in the harsh environs of remote Alaska try to stay alive), The Grey adds impressive layers of depth to what might otherwise just be a serviceable action thriller.
Neeson leads a band of seven survivors when a plane full of oil drillers crashes in the wintry, impossible wilderness of Alaska. From there, the movie could essentially be called Man vs. Wild. Or, more appropriately: Man vs. Wolves. There are wolves everywhere, and they are territorial and hungry. They like killing humans. And, one by one, they savagely pick off the band of plane crash survivors, stalking them mercilessly with those big, bad, glow-in-the-dark eyes.
The only option for the men is to fight back. To become wolves themselves, savage as they have to be. But just when you think this movie is going down the well-worn, Jack London-esque path of “humans are just as base, savage and instinctual as animals!” it becomes clear that that’s not what this film is about at all. The “grey” is not about the blurry lines between man and beast. It’s about the mysterious no man’s land in between life and death. It’s about the spiritual space at the end of one’s life, as the light of life dims and mixes with the unseeable darkness of whatever lies beyond.
The Grey is a movie about death. But don’t worry, it’s not depressing. It’s about dying well, dying humanely. What separates humans from animals? Among other things: the way that we die. Sure, we are like animals in that we instinctively fight to the death. Like wolves, we do not go quietly into the good night. But unlike wolves, when we do go into that good night, we do so self-reflectively, mournfully, existentially. We reflect on our lives and contemplate our conclusion like a philosopher, holding the hands of our loved ones as we go.
The Grey is essentially one death scene after another, though not in the Final Destination sense. These are beautiful scenes. They don’t milk emotion gratuitously or take up more time than is necessary. But they pack a punch. Especially in the last 30 minutes of so, The Grey really hits you.
This is a poetic film. There is literal poetry in it, and it’s central. But it’s also poetic in the way that’s it’s shot, in the way that flashbacks are utilized (like in The Thin Red Line, women only really appear in flashbacks), in the way that manhood and masculinity are explored. It’s poetic in its honesty about fear, dread, bravado, faith.
God is a major character, albeit mostly as an absentee, unbelieved-in-but-raged-against force in the sky. He may not seem to have a place in a story about plane crashes, unholy blizzards and demonic wolves who tear apart humans, but make no mistake: The Grey has its mind on God, or at least His imprint on it. What gives humans the grace to die well? What is it really that separates us from animals and makes us, for example, willing to appreciate a handshake, a memory, and a mountain vista in our final moments of life? The image of God which we bear. It sets us apart. It is the light that gives reprieve from the “only the strong survive” darkness. It is the light which, in clashing with the dark, creates the grey.