Liam Neeson is John Ottway, a severely depressed man working in a remote part of Alaska with an oil drilling team. Ottway’s job is to kill the wolves that threaten the team and early in the film the symbiotic relationship he has with the wolves is established when one of the wolves distracts him from taking his own life. The isolated snow covered setting and the all male cast recall John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) where the male scientific team in the Antarctic represented humanity on the frontier of civilisation defending themselves from an invading alien creature. In The Grey the invaders are the men. Their jobs entail plundering the Earth for its natural resources and killing the local wildlife. When the plane taking the men home crashes during a blizzard, Ottway and the other survivors are in the wolves’ territory. Yet this is not a gritty realistic survival film, but a film that functions on a mythical level to explore the meaning of life, the existence of God and the hubris of humanity.
In one sense The Grey is a critique of American foreign policy and military intervention, with the men from the oil drilling team representing an invading force and the wolves representing local insurgents. The men aren’t supposed to be where they are, but due to reasons beyond their control they are in a hostile environment and under immense threat. The wolves use their knowledge of the environment and the element of surprise to pick the men off one by one, like guerrilla forces who have changed the rules of engagement to compensate for their smaller numbers and inferior weaponry. Notions of civilisation and savagery are then tested by how the men respond. While Ottway attempts to maintain the balance between acting practically and morally, he is challenged by the far more nihilistic John Diaz (Frank Grillo) whose pre-emptive aggression threatens the stability of the entire group. When Diaz graphically decapitates a wolf and holds its head like a trophy while screaming at the pack, ‘You’re not the animals, we’re the animals!’ he has committed a war crime, making him worse than the enemy he is fighting against.
Similar to Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), and before that Charles Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness, Ottway’s physical journey is a metaphorical journey through his own soul. Many of the situations in The Grey suggest elaborate tests designed to assess his faith. Ottway may rage against God’s absence, but the cruel scenarios the men face reflect the constant presence of the insecure God of the Old Testament who constantly needs validation and evidence that his creation believes in him. The film contains symbolic moments such as a leap of faith and a deadly watery baptism, all of which test the resolve of the men and claims the lives of those who fail it. On the other hand, the Old Testament version of a harsh and judgemental God is not too dissimilar to the idea that nature is similarly unforgiving, making the film a series of punishments for the men who had the audacity to think they were the rulers of their domain when they are merely its subjects. Whether the punisher is an indifferent universe or a vengeful God, the men in The Grey suffer for their arrogance.
Or do they? Perhaps death in The Grey is the achievement of enlightenment. To push the metaphoric journey idea one step further, what if Ottway’s physical journey is really a spiritual journey in a way akin to that of the William Blake character in Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 masterpiece Dead Man. Curiously, director Joe Carnahan’s previous film The A-Team, which also starred Neeson, was a hyperactive celebration of masculinity. In stark contrast, masculinity is hell in The Grey. Prior to the plane crash, many of the opening scenes involve Ottway trying to mentally escape to a memory of being with his wife and being at peace. He is continually pulled out of that memory and back into the harsh and masculine world of the oil drilling team, visually torn away from a shot of his wife to appear in a shot set in the ‘real’ world. The memory of his wife is Ottway’s version of heaven, but the film is not ready for him to join her there – first he must journey from the hell of the all-male oil drill environment and then be tested in the purgatory of the Alaskan wilderness.
The tests in this sense are ones of moral leadership as well as faith, which involve Ottway steering the other men down the path of righteousness as much as looking out for himself. In one scene he almost functions as a Christ-like figure who shepherds a dying man into the next realm. Ottway also has to face his own shadow, the instinctive and primal part of him that challenges his moral reserve, and that element is represented in the film as the Alpha wolf. Opposing forces and yet both depending on the other to exist in terms of the film’s inbuilt mythology, Ottway and Alpha take the audience deep into America’s heart of darkness to ask what is more brutal: the hostile environment or the species that has dared to tame such an environment.
Carnahan hasn’t abandoned the elements of excitement and suspense for the sake of the film’s philosophical content, with the camera movement often mimicking the difficulty of running in deep snow, capturing the terror of the plane crash and lurking over a cliff to suggest a character’s fear of heights. As a simple survival story it is gripping cinema, but by being rich in metaphor, filled with ambiguity and widely open to interpretation, it is so much more. Even the title The Grey suggests the unknown factor, evoking the look of the Alaskan wilderness, the depressed state of Ottway’s mind and the vast space between white and black, right and wrong, heaven and hell.