First and foremost, The Grey is a movie about Liam Neeson fist-fighting giant, CGI wolves; but in another curiously present sense, The Grey is a film about poetry. Surprisingly, earnestly, and sometimes subtly: poetry. The film does not attempt to hide this aspect. Its running time boasts two recitations of verse, one of which acts as the film’s last lines. A framed poem forms a central emotional crux for Ottway, the Liam Neeson character. And though these are merely plot points that superficially reference poetry, what’s infinitely more intriguing is how visually and thematically poetic The Grey actually is. The plane crash that sets events in motion litters the tundra’s two-dimensions like a detonated stanza. Death is treated, over and over again, with an unflinching, stoic honesty. Long establishing shots frame the Alaskan landscape in ways that are downright, capital-R Romantic. The Grey is written in a brutal poetic mode, but a poetic one nonetheless. Which becomes all the more impressive when you remember that this is a movie about Liam Neeson fist-fighting giant, CGI wolves.
And fist-fight giant, CGI wolves Liam Neeson does, so hard. His function as a guardian of the drilling operators at the opening of the film persists essentially unchanged into survivalist chaos that follows the plane crash. This is very much a film about the imposition of the human economic and proprietary order on the natural world (also wolves), and Ottway’s ability to inhabit both zones simultaneously uniquely equips him for survival. It provides him, for lack of a better (not a) word, a sort of wolfish-ness. (The costume direction actively reinforces this lupine quality, dressing Neeson exclusively in furs and mottled greys.) That this survival imperative is introduced after his attempted suicide in the beginning further complicates things, and what you originally perceived as a death drive motivated by human concepts (guilt, loss, etc.) changes into a type of ontological depression. He wanted to die because he’d been forced to exist within civilization’s confines when he was anything but civilized; he wants to survive because that is simply what you do when those confines fall away.
The grander-scheme integration of the wolves is also notable, if only for how often they exist in the abstract, devoid of a physical form. When the wolves do attack, these attacks occur in bursts of violence that border on instantanteity. The camera swoops in. The editing cuts quintuple. As quickly as the wolves appear, they disappear back into the surrounding void. Most of the time, though, the wolves are incorporeal, hungry eyes glowing in the darkness, howls in the arctic wind. Theirs is a perceived, not embodied–and therefore more potent–threat. Horror’s influence on The Grey is at its most pronounced in these moments. Think of Norman’s mother’s voice in Psycho, the demonic voice that possess Linda Blair in The Exorcist; both are considerably more frightening than knives and levitating beds. Or take the germane example: the scene in The Grey when the (yes spoilers) three surviving men cross a chasm on a makeshift wire. Pete jumps to the trees on the other side, disappears into the branches, is reduced to a voice screaming to those on the other side. It’s just much scarier to reach for a voice you can hear than a hand you can see.
No less frightening is the damning influence of the beginning’s systematized and ordered human realm. The corporate drilling operation for which all the characters work is shown, from second one, to be an anarchic mess of an operation. Men are stripped of their names, reduced to functions, left to relate to one another wholly in the shallowest sense. They aren’t humanized until after the crash. Once removed, albeit partially, from the economic superstructure of the drilling operation, they speak honestly, are somehow abler to connect in desperation. It makes you wonder which situation is in reality more desperate: before the crash or after. Still, though, their ties to human realm hold tenuously to them (represented here by the wallets collected as memorials to the fallen, wallets that suggest that one becomes one’s true self in death: a collection of faded pictures in the basest consumerist signifier.) Ottway has to rid himself of the wallets before he can confront the alpha. Then and only then, the action suggests, he does he have a chance to survive.
Much rides on this final confrontation between Ottway and the alpha. Doubly so after it is revealed, in flashback, that Ottway’s wife is dead. Whereas the audience has been lead to believe he’s been fighting to return to her, he’s been fighting just to survive, nothing else. And this idea, that there is inextricable worth in the simple business of being as opposed to not, is one that exceeds any concept that a movie about Liam Neeson fist-fighting giant, CGI wolves should be presenting. It’s the stuff of poetry, not action movies. And it’s complicated further by what Liam Neeson is left to fight with: a poem and some broken whiskey bottles. The argument here is blatantly Petaccioan: in man’s battle against the destructive forces of the universe, his greatest weapons are poetry and alcohol. It is not accidental that Ottway, the son of an alcoholic poet, fights what will most likely be his final battle with these weapons, chosen not by him but by circumstance. It’s entirely intentional, and this fact elevates The Grey all the higher, makes it a film about how we arm one another in a world driven to disarm us, how our primordial desire not to die may be our highest, and most human, reason to continue living.
Archibald Macleish, the poet who founded the CIA, once wrote that, “A poem should not mean, but be.” As The Grey argues, the same goes for a man.
Strawberry Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 Strawberries