Saturday, June 09, 2012

Shades of Grey


The Grey is a straightforward story about a group of men who survive a plane crash in the middle of Alaska only to face a pack of wolves hunting them down as they embark on a desperate march back to civilization. One by one the men are picked off by the ravenous wolves. The first man is dispatched shortly after the plane crash by an encroaching wolf in the middle of the night. The second man is a straggler who's having difficulty keeping up; he's torn to pieces by the wolves. And so on.

The title of the movie is fitting, for it's not simply a movie about men hunted by grey wolves, but it's also a movie about ambiguities. There are no concrete certainties in the film. No perfectly good or bad characters. No satisfying answers to questions surrounding the events which transpire in the course of the film. No clear-cut ending. No explicit moral lesson to be learnt. No ought from is. Neither black nor white but plenty of shades of grey.

What's more, apparent paradoxes and ironies abound as well.

On the face of it, the movie appears to be an adventure-action film. But digging beneath the surface there's actually more to it than standard adventure fare. There's a poetic quality to the story. The exterior adventure is pushed forward by the men's inner resolve, which in turn mainly stems from their sheer will to survive, their desire to see their loved ones, and/or God.

On the one hand, Alaska is depicted as a barren wasteland filled with death. A cold, dark place at the end of the world. The tractless white landscape stretching miles and miles in every direction signifying desolate emptiness. The thick, miry snow through which the men must trudge one footstep by leaden footstep at a time. The howling, fierce blizzard pouring its wrath on their heads from every which way. But on the other hand, there are glimpses of glory in the natural beauty of Alaska. There are moments of respite where the characters sit or stand still, in reverent awe over what they've seen or heard. They feel so small, so insignificant in contrast to the landscape around them, like a tiny little snowflake against the big starry night sky. Here for a moment, then gone forever.

Then there are the wolves. If the weather doesn't get them, the wolves will. The wolves are led by an alpha wolf. On the one hand, the characters tell us the wolves are evolved killing machines. They have fur and coat, padded feet, speed and dexterity, and razor-sharp fangs to survive in the wild. But this stands in stark contrast to their prey which in this case is the surviving men. What can the men do against the wolves? They're big and slow, unfit to sludge through the snow especially without boots, they freeze without clothes and fire, and they have nothing to defend themselves unless they make a weapon. When it's man vs. wild, man will lose.

The men are a bunch of ex-cons, fugitives, drifters. Low-lifes. Nobody cares about them and they don't care about nobody. Godless men stranded in a God-forsaken country. John Ottway (played by Liam Neeson) quickly establishes himself as the leader. Ottway is a man hired by an Alaskan petroleum company to shoot and kill wolves which threaten the oil drillers. Ottway happens to be the right man at the right place at the right time. However, this too isn't as providential as it may seem. Maybe it's just a coincidence. In any case it's rather ambiguous, and furthermore ironic. For the movie begins by telling us Ottway's wife has died, and Ottway has lost all hope to live. The night before he had boarded the plane which eventually crashed, Ottway had written a last letter, addressed to his already deceased wife, because he planned to shoot himself in the mouth. He doesn't do it. Yet the next day his plane crashes, and the movie starts with him fighting to live. A man who only one night before wanted to die, but who now pushes men to live another day.

A further incongruity. What saves Ottway from pulling the trigger is that he hears a wolf howl in the distance. The call of the wild wolf brings him back from the brink. But, of course, the movie moves - at first glacially but later with the speed of a snowball culminating in an avalanche - toward Ottway's inevitable faceoff with the alpha wolf.

There are a couple of other characters which serve more than as simple chow food for the wolves. At least two of them say they believe in God. One of them offers a prayer to God to bless the deceased passengers of the crash. But others argue vehemently against God. They think it's just the survival of the fittest, and once we die, that's it. All that's "real" (they say) is what they see around them. Currently the snowy woods, the blistering cold, the pitch black night. There's no heaven nor hell. But on the other hand, when some of the characters die, they see a vision of a loved one. A wife or daughter or parent. A loved one who somehow "takes" them beyond. Men struggling to survive, resisting with all their might to go gently into the night, raging, raging against the dying of the light. But then dying with such blissful serenity, ushered from life into death by their loved ones. I find it paradoxical.

A world devoid of God, where it's kill or be killed, is as bleak and as dire as the men's current circumstances. Perhaps it's no wonder one of the (atheist) characters simply gives up. He calls for the other men to stop because he can no longer walk any further due to his injuries. The party stops in front of a crystal clear blue lake surrounded by high, snow-capped mountains and scented evergreen trees. The injured man sits on a log trying to take in the scenery. He refuses to go on. Rather he wishes to sit and die. Let the wolves come while he takes in a last sunset. For he knows even if should survive, there's nothing for him to go back to at home. All this beauty and order around us, all this inner yearning for love and life, but underlying the apparent beauty and order in nature is actually the ugliness and disorder of evolutionary law which governs nature, which governs our own yearnings. We come from the slime, we fight to survive, and in the end we die. Our most heartfelt loves and desires are, at bottom, the result of the evolutionary process. There's nothing more to it than that. It's a sort of cosmetic consonance atop deep dissonance. So what else could be the proper response but a cry of despair wailing into the night? Or resignation.

Ottway sighs wishing he could believe in God but he doesn't. At one point in the movie, after one of the God-believing characters has died, Ottway "prays," although the prayer is laced with profanities directed against God. Ottway by turns begs and demands God to reveal himself. To give him a sign. To give him anything which might cement in him some hope. But there's no reply. Only silence and stillness. Only the momentarily clear sky and a bit of sunlight. Or maybe that is the reply? At the end of the movie, however, Ottway builds what looks like a cross out of wallets. (Ottway had previously insisted on collecting as many wallets from all the deceased passengers of the plane as the men could take in order to bring the wallets back to their families should someone reach civilization.) Ottway also places the letter he had written to his wife on top of the cross. What changed him? Has Ottway made his peace with God?

On the one hand, this is a story about a man who was already forgotten by the rest of society even prior to his crash. A man at the edge of the world. A man still without hope and without God. A man summoning whatever resources remain, if any, to fight for his very life. A man hoping without hope to wring some sense or meaning out of his fleeting life, which is quickly receding before him, as he's chased by feral beasts which know not how to show mercy but only fly into a feeding frenzy with the slightest hint or smell of blood. It's all about the primal instincts. But on the other hand, the man has a greater predator to fear, yet to revere: the hound of heaven. He may escape the wolves, but he never can escape the hound. The hound which dogs his every step, which advances against his every play to evade, but which when it has him by the throat, will prove his salvation.

Of course, in a world where the God of the Bible reigns these ambiguities and ironies are and will be reconciled. A fallen world is nevertheless a good world. Sinful men can find redemption. Suffering and evil are meaningful in light of God's plan and purpose. Death doesn't have the final word. The shades of grey in Paradise Lost will color over to become Paradise Regained. The wolf will lie with the lamb.

But in a naturalistic evolutionary world there's only the grey, and then ultimately only the black.


  1. Excellent review. I thought the movie was well done, and got despair across to the audience. When my wife and I left the theater I remember some of the people's reaction. Some said that was a terrible action movie and others complained about how the ending left then hanging.

    1. Thanks, Pseudo-Augustine! :-)

      I agree it wasn't an action movie. I mean it wasn't like maybe The Book of Eli or one of the many zombie movies out there. And what little action there was seemed to be more about how the men tried to fend off the wolves. I think the movie strived to be something more; I think it wanted to be more of a reflection on the meaning of life and death. My guess is the movie was meant to be along the lines of the first half of I Am Legend or Cast Away. But I guess most people were probably looking for some epic man vs. wolf throwdowns! :-)

      That said, I do blame the movie in part because it did ramp up our expectations for all the smackdown when it showed that Ottway was a trained and experienced wolf hunter. And via speeches where Ottway said stuff like, we have to go on the offensive against these wolves, kill them one by one just like they're killing us one by one, etc.

      At first I gotta admit I was a bit disappointed by the ending too. And even the very brief scene at the end of the credits was ambiguous and unsatisfying. But later I thought maybe it was actually a pretty good ending in light of how the movie had unfurled itself and in light of the questions it attempted to have the audience consider.

      Maybe the ending still could've been better. Like I kinda think it might've made for a better ending to have had Ottway shown on screen to have been killed by the alpha wolf. Although this would possibly be even more disappointing to those who wanted an action film since I think they'd want him to emerge victorious.

      Maybe I'm wrong but personally I don't think it would've been very realistic to have shown Ottway killing the wolf. At best it might've given me some momentary satisfaction in watching the no holds barred man vs. wolf fight. But again it would've seemed to me incongruous with the rest of the film.

      Plot-wise it was sort of like watching one of those horror movies where you're like wondering which character is gonna be next. And there was some unwieldly dialogue maybe due to bad scripting. Or maybe just bad acting. But overall I thought it did a good job. It wasn't a four star movie, I don't think, but I enjoyed it anyway.