They’re Not Actually Wolves

Strange film, The Grey.

I’ve seen it a couple of times now, and it’s… powerful. I’m going to talk about why. I’m going to do it in a very amateur fashion – no Roger Ebert-style professional reviewing here – and I’m going to use…

SPOILERS.

There are going to be SPOILERS for The Grey in this post. So please don’t read on if you want to preserve the mystery.

That said, I think the point of this particular film — the aspect of it that makes it so very effective — isn’t so deeply rooted in or dependent on its surprises. Yes, the film has a narrative, but I think it’s less important than the theme of the film and the mood it creates and, in the end, the questions it asks.

A quick summary. As quick as I think I can reasonably make it. Liam Neeson — he of a multitude of Taken movies — leads here as Ottway, a grizzled and introverted worker at a remote oil refinery in inhospitable Alaska. A facility apparently the size of a small town, it has, apparently, a constant problem with local wolves, and it’s Ottway’s job to keep them under control and away from the oil workers.

Just as an aside at what seems a suitable moment: this film copped a lot of shit from wolf enthusiasts and, um, wolfologists (?) over its depiction of lupine behaviour — in particular their aggression. It’s true that the wolves portrayed here don’t behave as real ones might, but it’s fair to say there’s a reason for that, thematically, and that’s that they’re not actually wolves.

Bear with me — wolf with me? — and I’ll come back to this.

Ottway is a lonely, isolated man. Practical, capable, but also apparently in a dark emotional place: his wife, it appears, has recently left him, and he’s finding it hard to cope. But he has no-one to confide in or lean on, and we join him as he visits the settlement’s bar. He takes a stiff drink — alone — then goes out into the snowy night, finds a quiet spot, and places the barrel of his rifle in his mouth.

He’s about to pull the trigger when something catches his attention: the howling of wolves somewhere in the night. And, for whatever reason, he puts his plan on hold.

Some time later, he joins several of the workers on an aeroplane taking them all back home for their rest cycle. There’s much joshing and joking from the other men about planes crashing in bad weather — and then the plane crashes in the bad weather.

So far so conventional. Rugged survival story, Neeson leads them all back to safety, etc.

But almost at once we see this isn’t going to be that kind of film. In and around the wreck of the ship are dead and injured men and, inside, one with a severe abdominal wound. He’s gushing, and several men are flapping around trying to work out how to treat him.

Ottway sees at once that out here in the snowy wilds, the injured man has no chance. He tells the guy, gruffly but surprisingly tenderly, that he is going to die. And then he helps guide him into it, comforting him and telling him to keep thinking of someone he loves.

With the man dead, Ottway sets about organising the other survivors. He knows they won’t be found and that they must move in an attempt to find rescue. And as they move off, taking what few supplies they can gather, they become aware of a pack of wolves that begin to stalk them.

The bulk of the movie, then, follows Ottway and his group as they try to keep moving while fending off constant attacks by the wolf pack. It doesn’t go well, as the group is separated and picked off one by one, until there are only three left. Ottway and two other men come to a river running from the base of a distant mountain range. One of the three, Diaz, tells the others that he’s going to stop here. He has nothing, really, to look forward to in life, he explains, and if he’s got the choice he’ll choose to end here, in this wild beauty, than survive and live out the rest of a life that no longer has meaning for him.

Hendrick objects, but Ottway accepts Diaz’s agency, his right to make the choice for himself. Ottway and Hendrick continue on.

The film doesn’t have an uplifting, jolly ending. Fleeing the wolves, Hendrick drowns further down the river, and Ottway is left alone. We learn in flashback that Ottway’s wife left him because she died of an illness, and that the letter we’d previously seen him writing to her was in essence his suicide note.

Ottway soon discovers that despite his attempt to steer clear of the wolves he’s ended up walking into the middle of their den, and the film ends with him preparing himself for a last, hopeless fight against the lead wolf. An ambiguous post-credits scene, showing Ottway and the wolf both lying in the snow, has sparked countless debates. Did they both die? Did Ottway actually beat the wolf, as some optimists insist, and recover and finally get rescued?

No, I don’t think he did. I think that’s the point. Quite aside the fact that, having earlier tried to rescue the drowning Hendrick, he was wearing wet clothes in Alaskan snow, I think the film had to have everyone die because, at its heart, that’s what the film is about. It’s about death. That’s what the wolves were. That’s why they were ravenous man-eaters. The film is about finding meaning in the fact that Humans are transient; that we have only a limited time here and that, in the end, however we run and scramble through the snow in our attempt to escape it, sooner or later the Grey will overtake us. The question the film asks, I think, is simply how we might eventually, inevitably, face it. It shows us, in particular, the last three men to die. It shows us how they meet the Grey and it asks us: what should we do? Do we keep moving, keep pushing on, like Hendrick, even though we can’t ever really hope to get away? Keep running for as long as we can in the hope of snatching just one more day, one more hour, one more moment, from the jaws that pursue us?

Or do we turn and face it? Smile, accept it, and wait for it, like Diaz with his mountains? Do we claim a moment of peace as we wait for it to find us?

Or do we arm ourselves as best we can and fight to the very last breath, like Ottway? Refusing, with everything we are and everything we might have been, to go gently into the night?

Is the film asking us which of these are right? Which of these are valid? Whether one is better than the others? Or is it simply observing, making distinctions but no judgements?

And there is the fourth ending, the fourth scenario which is notable in its separation from the others. In our first few minutes with Ottway we see him preparing himself to invite the Grey to take him — even though he is at that time in no danger. At that time, the wolves are not near. They are not stalking him. They are away in the distance, far off in the trees.

But still, he considers pulling the trigger of his rifle, and he presents us with another possibility: we may choose to summon the Grey to us.

This ending, though, is not fulfilled. Ottway puts down his gun and continues. Why? Aside from the narrative difficulty of centring a movie on a dead lead character, this fourth ending could easily have been revisited, or later embodied by a different character — but the moment remains in the past. It’s not considered again, and when Hendrick, who, it turns out, had noticed Ottway leaving the bar that night, briefly discusses it with Ottway towards the end of the film, the latter simply replies that “It doesn’t matter now.”

Is the film telling us that the fourth ‘ending’ is less valid than the others? Is this the reason for its separation in the narrative? Or is there some hint of association, at the end, between Ottway’s early dilemma — to fire or not — and his final act of defiance in the face of the Grey? That he accepts a violent end, if it means he can choose to go out on his terms and under his own control?

The Grey is a film of a type I’d usually avoid. I don’t do well with bleak endings and sad stories. But this film, the two times I’ve seen it now, has resonated powerfully for me. Perhaps it just speaks to the part of me that dwells on some of these questions more than I maybe should, and more than is maybe entirely healthy.

It’s a sort of existential metaphor, challenging us to consider who we are and how we think about what we mean. It doesn’t give any answers, I don’t think, but I think that’s the point.

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