Rated R for horror mostly, involving wolves --you know --eating people. But the movie as a whole tends to be pretty brutal and vulgar. The setting stresses that the characters who are bunched together tend to be the worst of humanity. This is a place where people pride themselves on toxic masculinity and language. While every character isn't necessarily the worst, expect some pretty gross conversations. The protagonist also is suicidal, which should be considered before watching the movie. R.
DIRECTOR: Joe Carnahan
Do you know why I watched this movie? I mean, I do. It's not like I own it or have seen it before. It's not on any list that I can think of. It wasn't an impulse rental. Nope. Dan Harmon regularly makes reference to this movie on Harmontown and my little FOMO brain can't help but get all of the references. That's probably a healthy reason to sit down and watch a movie about Liam Neeson trying to escape from killer wolves, right?
The crazy thing is...I really liked it? I tend to not like things on principle. It's a horrible trait and I need to probably look to that. As much as I advocate for people to unabashedly love what they love, there's always a part of me that is shooting for street cred. It's the reason that I don't lose my mind for pumpkin spice season. Pumpkin spice is delicious, but it doesn't need any more attention from me. That's the insecurity that's overshadowing my watch of The Grey. I realized that The Grey is hitting a very specific subgenre of survival film. I had this epiphany with my recent rewatching of Aliens. I've always vocalized my complete respect and love of the OG Jurassic Park and then discovered that Aliens and Jurassic Park have a lot in common. These are the movies where the villain isn't one thing. It is the notion that packs of killers may completely outrun our heroes and pick them off one-by-one. In the process of that stealthy form of super-killer, the survivors learn about the value of life and fight for that life against all odds.
Now, Jurassic Park and, dare I say it, Aliens are both pretty smart versions of that story. They're smarter than The Grey, which embraces the survival horror element of the story harder than the aforementioned films. Both of those movies complicate their narratives with complex political and socioeconomic subplots that make them surpass their own summer blockbuster formulae. But The Grey is very okay with making this about character and I realized...that I kind of works too. Jurassic Park and Aliens allow for this amazing character growth, but sometimes a film doesn't need to be as rich and nuanced as those films. Instead, The Grey takes these stock archetypes and tries building them into something worth watching.
A lot of these characters seem like action movie caricatures, something found in a LionsGate film. (I'll keep poking that bear as long as I can.) But as the film starts weeding out some of those characters, the movie focuses on what happens when artifice starts disappearing in the face of imminent death. Sure, you have Ottway who seems pretty static. His internal conflict is about a kind of thin suicide attempt that he's now abandoned for the sake of ensuring the survival of his new pack. His isolation gone, he quickly finds a need to live not for himself but for others. The thing about it is that when the suicide attempt from the beginning of the movie is called back, I kind of forgot about it because the secondary characters became far more interesting. If anything, Ottway became this odd avatar character for us, despite the fact that he had more knowledge than the audience did about surviving wolf attacks. He was so stable and we quickly could see the rest of the survivors getting picked off one-by-one that it became about knowing the fears and concerns of the individuals. They had to make these leaps in growth that Ottway had to do with his bargaining with God.
It's in writing this that I wonder if Ottway is the reason that we're watching the movie. Ottway actually seems to have his internal conflict thrown in our faces. There's this implication that Ottway may have been a man of faith before the death of his wife, but that's never made clear until it becomes brutally clear. I wish I could say that this was the story of a man running from God only to find a crisis moment that he needed to overcome. Honestly, to continue this point, I'm not sure what The Grey's message is about faith and God. This movie feels crazy cynical about God and the power of belief. But also, the fact that Ottway even yells out to God in the woods is telling that there's that mustard seed of faith. It also might be this really telling story about how God is not a magician and that yelling at God won't get you what you need. It's that faith that always interests me. Heck, it might be my favorite element of the film because Carnahan doesn't give us an easy answer. Setting aside that the theme of faith and death should have been set up from the beginning of the movie, it is because Carnahan refuses to spoonfeed the audience an answer that it becomes interesting.
Because from an atheist's point of view, Ottway is ignored by his pleas to God. When Ottway yells through the trees to God and bargains his faith against his survival, there's no response. If anything, the movie's extremely ambiguous ending of Ottway going square against the wolves implies that it can go any way, with the wolves having a distinct non-Hollywood advantage. But Ottway's very fight for his survival, despite being completely overwhelmed, might contain the message of "God helps those who help themselves." I honestly can't see Ottway winning that final fight in any way that wouldn't involve a miracle. Yet, if Carnahan had shown us the result of Ottway's battle with the wolves (besides being rad), it would have been wildly depressing or corny inspirational. If anything, Carnahan is pointing the camera back at the audience and allowing them to decide not only Ottway's fate, but the existence of God. Those scenes juxtaposed back-to-back act as a mirror to the message of faith. He stood on the shoulder of every skeptic finding faith movie and asked whether that is how reality is.
And there is no right answer. This movie is either the skeptics thesis statement or it is asking viewers to believe that there is a God who would throw Daniel into the lions' den, only to have him emerge righteous. I can't help but think that Neeson must embrace this character choice because that same cynicism can be seen in Silence. He's this guy who wrestles with the role of God in the universe and that's really interesting because neither character offers easy answers.
Sure it is a great action survival movie, even if it is extremely straightforward. Carnahan's use of hallucination is gorgeous and the wolves are absolutely terrifying. He has all of these little moments that allow the hunt and desperation for survival to end with these dark catharses. But that's what made the movie super fun to watch. I dug it when I thought that I wouldn't. That's something.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.