Thursday, February 9, 2012
A group of hardened men—tough and brawling types, the sort who pick their teeth with rusty nails and shave with shards of broken glass—are abandoned to the wilds of Alaska. All they have is what they can carry, their only weapons a box of shotgun shells and a couple of pocketknives. Around a campfire they all sit, shyly revealing their greatest fears and sorrows as they learn to trust one another. And should this prove too much for the men, they can always take their chances with the pack of wolves just beyond the firelight, circling in the dark.
Quite possibly the cruelest male sensitivity retreat ever devised, The Grey is a hard-nosed tale of Arctic survival and existential despair. Writer/director Joe Carnahan’s mixture of visceral action scenes with introspective reveries could easily collapse into an embarrassing mish-mash of macho posturing and maudlin self-pity. Yet the film actually fits well with another recent melancholy action film, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Both invest deeply (and sincerely) in traditional tough-guy poses—Ryan Gosling’s steely, quiet driver, Liam Neeson’s no-nonsense, take-charge oil worker—and then reveal a clanging hollowness inside that strength. These are still both action films, filled with moments of vicious, blood-spattering violence. But unlike mainstream action films, they can conjure up a stillness more shattering than any of the savagery on display. There is nothing quite so lonely as a man of action in repose.
Not that there is much time for repose in The Grey. Following the struggles of seven plane-crash survivors hounded by a pack of wolves in the Arctic, the film spends much of its time on the run with the men. But it still finds time for quiet moments around the campfire, where the terrified men try to come to terms with the looming promise of death. Granted, there’s something perfunctory in these moments—what wilderness survival tale doesn’t have the campfire bonding scene?—but Carnahan elevates them with a sense of detail. Rather than have his characters unspool long, overdramatic monologues revealing their life stories, the filmmaker instead settles on a few snatches of the past. One man is encapsulated in the image of his daughter’s hair tickling his face; another dwells upon a lousy encounter with an aged prostitute. Neeson’s character, John Ottway, is defined by the deathbed letter written by his deceased wife, which flashes before the camera on several occasions, but never long enough to read. The tantalizing detail is all we’re given.
Although the film is ostensibly a survival film, it isn’t so much about surviving as it is about coming to terms with death. If you were feeling uncharitable, you could even characterize it as a big-screen takeoff on the cheese-ball television show 1000 Ways to Die (aired on ultra-macho channel Spike, incidentally). The film ticks off a number of gruesome death fantasies, from plane crash to animal attack to drowning and asphyxiation. More importantly, the ubiquitous wolf pack serves as a somewhat obvious stand-in for the grim implacability of our own mortality. They’re the brute truth of our animal natures, which demands we succumb to the decay of the world like any other beast, regardless of whatever high-flown palliatives offered by our philosophy or religion. Still, this is an action film at root, and Carnahan’s blissfully materialist filmmaking does not neglect the physical reality of his symbols. When the metaphor is mauling you, its meaning is largely moot.
This is existential angst with teeth, in other words. When the story begins, Ottway is preparing to kill himself, coming so close as to taste the barrel of his rifle. But he stopped, either because of the memory of a poem written by his father or the taunting howl of the wolves. Later, when the men are lost in the wilderness, they each must confront death in turn. All of them seem to live for something or someone—a wife or a daughter, perhaps—except for Ottway, who lives for nothing and yet clings more tenaciously to life than all the rest. For all the film’s anguish about death and fear, it is finally a guttural piece of tough-guy philosophizing, where men grit their teeth and shout fuckface at the unblinking heavens—and then face down death with a broken bottle in hand, as if in a barroom brawl.