Sunday, February 26, 2012


     This month I discovered a terrific follow-up subject to my last five posts -- three on Zest for Living and two on Solace for Dying.  It's the new movie "The Grey," starring Liam Neeson as an oil-company marksman named John Ottway.  In it, a plane carrying him and several dozen fellow workers to Anchorage from an arctic drilling site crashes in the mid-winter Alaska wilderness.  Those who survive the crash succumb one-by-one to the elements and to a pack of wolves, leaving Ottway at the end to face the pack and its alpha male alone.
     Three of the primary themes I discussed in the five posts are central to the film.  Foremost is the non-humanness of nature and its essential alienness to human civilization.  Second is the tragic riddle of human mortality:  why must we live and die?  Finally, when and under what circumstances does the human instinct to live give way to an acceptance of death?  Though flawed in minor ways, the film as a whole masterfully weaves the three themes into its narrative of a catastrophe.
     It begins at night with Ottway entering a company rec center with a neon cross by the door advertising a chapel somewhere inside.  What actually greets him is a bar full of brawling drunks behaving as anything but civilized Christians.  Ignoring the bedlam, he silently drinks while describing in glum voiceover what a bunch of louts and losers he and they all are.
     This initial hint of a chasm between civilization and wildness in the men themselves is underscored by the frigid weather.  As they embark later that night on the disastrous flight, the workers shiver inside their arctic gear, beards flecked with ice.  An airline employee barks at them to hurry up so the de-icing will last through takeoff.  Hours later, after earlier hitting some turbulence, the plane suddenly starts disintegrating and plunging earthward.  Ottway manges to double-belt himself to his seat before trees rush by below him in the morning light.  With a boom the screen goes blank.
     He wakes up face-down in an empty field of wind-blown snow.  Staggering to his feet, hands and feet caked with snow, he peers around stupefied.  This early scene and the crash sequence leading to it dramatize with stunning force and realism the vulnerability of human beings to raw nature.  Though many hardships await Ottway, none is more random and inhuman than this.  The only civilization he has left are the clothes he's wearing.
     Stumbling to the top of a nearby drift, he sees the wreckage of the plane and runs towards someone inside it yelling for help.  Eight men somehow survive, one with a fatal chest wound.  As the others watch in stricken silence, Ottway calmly tells him he's going to die and should let it "slide over" and warm him.  He tells him to choose death and let those "you love take you away."  Almost immediately the man does die, and one of the other men cries out in horror, "Did he just fucking die!?"  Ottway says they'll all die if they don't work together fast.  His demand for teamwork is another sign of the no-nonsense compassion he's just shown the dying man.
     His fitness to lead them is proven that night.  He hears a noise beyond the light of their fire and finds a dead stewardess being eaten by a wolf, which attacks him and retreats after a vicious fight.  The other men are dressing Ottway's wounds when they hear a new noise.  They warily investigate, and a huge, grey-black wolf steps into the light of their torches.  The eyes of other wolves gleam from the dark.  Realizing it's the pack's alpha male, Ottway tell the men to hold their ground.  Eventually the alpha turns and leads the other wolves away.  Ottway's company job is to kill wolves at the work-site, and he explains their territoriality and their hostility to anything that invades their den area.
     For the rest of the film, the wolves are the main threat.  Next morning, the men discover the body of the man who was standing watch ripped to pieces.  Telling them they should leave the plane at once for the cover of woods some miles away, Ottway first has them collect wallets from the corpses for their families.  Then someone else suggests offering an impromptu prayer.  Only a cynical, anti-social ex-con, tongue-lashed by Ottway for stealing from a wallet, refuses to cooperate.  Parallelling the wolves' deference to their alpha male, all of the men but the ex-con defer to Ottway.
     They set out for the forest in a blizzard.  As they plod on, one man straggles a few yards behind and is instantly killed by stalking wolves.  These are driven away, but as the men approach the woods that afternoon they're attacked from behind by more stalkers trying to catch them in the open.  Piling pellmell into the trees, they frantically light a fire to keep the wolves, barking and snarling on every side, at bay.  Then Ottway has them fashion "bangsticks" from spears capped with shotgun shells he's scavenged from the wreck.
     The ex-con ridicules and rejects everything Ottway orders.  Finally Ottway stares at him and says, "I understand.  You're scared."  This the ex-con hotly denies, and Ottway says, "Really?  I'm terrified."  The ex-con says, "That's because you're a punk" and threatens him with a knife.  Overpowering him, Ottway commands him to stop his "bullshit."
     Suddenly the alpha wolf appears, glares at them, and withdraws.  The ex-con, shaken by Ottway and the alpha, recants, apologizes, and gets to work on a bangstick.  Soon another wolf appears.  Ottway identifies him as an omega-outcast, sent by the the alpha to test them, and leads a successful battle to kill him.  To demoralize the watching pack, the men cook and eat the carcass and throw its head back into the woods.  This triumph cheers them into discussing the mortal dangers they've survived and still face.  One says there must be a divine plan behind it all, but the now-sympathetic ex-con dismisses that idea as a "fairy tale" and says its all "luck" when you live and "nothing" when you die.  Ottway agrees, saying he believes only what's "real," like his frozen breath.  When someone challenges his lack of "faith," Ottway retorts, "I only believe what I can see and feel."
     Worried they're too exposed, Ottway leads the men at once to rocks where the wolves can attack from just one side.  Here they continue their cheerful talk.  The funniest comes from the ex-con, who says he's determined to stay alive for more fucking because his last was with a whore so ugly he refuses to die on such an awful note.  Another man says his daughter lets nobody but him cut her hair.  Ottway describes his hard-boiled yet poetical Irish-Catholic father, who wrote and framed a short poem with the opening and closing lines, "Once more into the fray,/ To live and die on this day."
     Suddenly the only black man among them starts hallucinating, and they bed him into the snow for the night.  Next morning they wake up to another blizzard.  Unable to rouse the black man, Ottway doesn't want to acknowledge he's dead, showing how determined he is to try to save everyone.  He gets encouragement from a nearby tree stump left by loggers.  The sound of rushing water in the distance stirs hopes of finding a logging camp downstream.
     The've gone a short way towards the sound when they reach the top of a sheer, hundred-foot cliff extending straight across their path as far as the eye can see.  The only way down is for someone to jump from the cliff into treetops twenty feet away with an improvised rope that the others can then cross on.  After that they'll climb down the trees to the ground.
     The episode struck me as the film's weakest.  Mimicking the superhero stunts that currently trivialize so many action movies, it comes off mostly as melodrama.  After the leaper makes it, one of the others breaks through snow at the top of the cliff and is barely caught by someone else who also almost falls.  This kind of triteness is worsened by the cheesiness of the computer-generated cliff, the only phony special effect of its kind in the film.
     This is not to say the episode isn't exciting or nerve-wracking, just that it needn't have been so hyperbolic and full of cliches.  When in a panic the last man to cross breaks the rope, swings helplessly into the trees, falls through branches, and hits the ground on his back with a sickening thud, the effect is shattering.  He's lying in shock, hallucinating that his daughter's with him, when he's killed and dragged away by wolves.
     Scrambling down to help, the ex-con falls and critically injures his knee.  Realizing the wolves can somehow navigate the cliff, they hurry toward the river, the ex-con hobbling behind.  At the river's edge the ex-con stops and refuses the others' pleas to keep going.  He says he;s just had the "clearest thought" of his life, which is that he's too tired to take another step and will die here.  He asks Ottway if death will slide over and warm him, and Ottway, himself exhausted, reluctantly answers, "Yes."
     I found this the film's most powerful scene emotionally.  The man who earlier mocked everyone for following Ottway and who denied fear, now seeks and gets Ottway's approval for choosing to die.  He asks the others why he'd ever want to return to his drunken, oil-rig life when he's had "this," motioning at mountains forested with snow-covered trees in the distance.  Ottway and the other remaining survivor, named Pete, try to dissuade him but can't.  As a final token of comradeship they shake hands and tell each other their first names.  They also accept his wallet.  When they've gone, the ec-con faces the mountains and whispers, "I'm afraid."
     This is similar to what Ottway's wife says in a recurring dream or flashback he has of one of their last moments together, facing each other in bed.  But she murmurs, "Don't be afraid."  Ottway first has the flashback in his barracks before the flight while tearfully writing her some kind of farewell letter that concludes, "I'm past doing any good to the world."  After he and Pete leave the ex-con and trudge downriver, Pete says that the look on the ex-con's face was like the one he'd seen on Ottway's just before Ottway left the bar the night of the flight.  What Pete doesn't know is that Ottway left the bar to kill himself.  We know, because we saw Ottway put a rifle in his mouth and reach for the trigger, stopping only when he heard wolves howling in the distance.  We also know he brought the letter to his wife on the flight, retrieved it from the wreckage, and still has it.  Pete asks him why he left the bar, suspecting he meant to commit suicide.  Ottway answers, "It really doesn't matter now, does it?"
     The conversation's interrupted by two wolves who start chasing them along the riverbank.  Pete falls into rapids and is swept away, Ottway running alongside and yelling at him to hang on.  Then Ottway jumps in too, and they both bob wildly down the torrent.  Suddenly Pete's foot wedges in a rock.  Ottway tries to save him, but Pete's too panicked.  He drowns.
     Ottway drags himself out of the water and sits down in the snow.  In the film's intellectual climax, he stares up into a blank, grey sky and cries, "If I ever needed you, I need you now!  Show me something real, do something real for me, and I'll believe in you for the rest of my life!"  Nothing happens.  After waiting a few more seconds, he mutters derisively, "I'd rather do it myself anyway," and gets up.
     He has, out of supreme need and misery, asked the universe to care about and help him the way he's been caring about and helping those who've died since the crash.  Getting no response, he concludes that his empirical materialism (he'd never use those words) is best after all.  He is, like the ex-con, finally ready for the death he's been trying so hard -- and vainly -- to save other from and that he himself rejected two nights earlier.
     He strips himself of his outer clothing and everything else but the bag of wallets, walks into the woods, and kneels down to kill himself, probably with his knife.  After looking at their photos of girlfriends, children, and wives, including his own, he tearfully stacks the wallets into a sort of shrine, laying his and the letter to his wife on top.  It's his final affirmation of a human lovingness alien to the immense wilderness around him.
     He also has a final flashback of his wife saying, "Don't be afraid," but this time we see her medical drip.  She's dying and either consoling him for that or else hallucinatorily consoling him in his present ordeal.  Either way, it helps explain his jadedness when the film opens, why he has such a strange job, and why he tries to kill himself: -- he's still mourning her so desperately that he writes her a suicide note beginning, "Dearest one, I've been meaning to write you for a long time."
     He suddenly becomes aware of wolves around him.  Standing up, he sees he's in the middle of their den.  This final twist annoyed me with its echoes of the heavy-handed determinism of novelists like Thomas Hardy and Jack London.  Their worldview, premised on Newtonian physics, has long since been superseded by quantum indeterminism.  To this point, the film dramatizes the modern, indeterminate worldview well, even in its title hinting at the ambiguity and "greyness" of the natural order.  But in trapping Ottway in the irony of reaching the very destination he most wants to avoid, it carelessly implies that nature's a Newtonian machine.
     That said, the final scene also deftly ties together the film's three main themes.  Confronted by the alpha and ringed by his pack, Ottway knows he's going to be killed by  ruthless wildness.  But he's also affirmed his doctrine of material proof as the right answer for him to the riddle of mortality, and he chooses to die, not passively like the ex-con, but by fighting for his life, as he has throughout, to the bitter end.
     He breaks three small bottles of liquor and grips them in the fingers of his left hand and his knife in his right hand.  Facing the alpha, he recites his father's poem about living and dying on this day.  With a flash of grey and a boom like that of the plane crash, the screen goes blank and the credits roll.  This time Ottway will not wake up.
     "The Grey" is a tragic and, despite some adolescent gimmicks, uncompromisingly intelligent and mature film.  Its  portrayal of human confusion, death, and vulnerability in face of an inhuman irrationality and violence is unusually grim.
     Yet beneath the grimness is an affirmation of human courage, dedication, and compassion that will touch all thoughtful and sensitive men and women, no matter what their worldview is.  Ottway is deeply skeptical, of course, but his is an agnosticism of the best kind.  He's open to every possibility, demanding only reasonably solid evidence for claims to truth.  And he clearly cares about other people and dearly loves his wife, perhaps too much.
     He even sympathizes with the wolves he kills.  This is reinforced at the end of the closing credits by a quick shot of the alpha male lying on his side mortally wounded, heaving final breaths like those of a dying wolf Ottway had earlier shot and laid a comforting hand on.  This time Ottway's dead too.  But if he could, he'd comfort this one too.

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