By Jacob Mertens.
In the beginning of the poem “Dante’s Inferno,” Dante finds himself in a dark wood, disorientated, grasping for an understanding of his surroundings. Within this grim setting, the poet conjures a primordial chaos, in which Dante’s last impressions of life follow him into the death. In much the same way, The Grey leads a group of plane crash survivors through the white wash of a blizzard to the outline of a forest. They kindle a fire under a skyless canopy and sit in the dark, listening to the unearthly howls of a pack of wolves that encircle their meager camp. In this moment, The Grey reconciles the cheap thrills of suspense with a poetic frailty that verges on the fantastical. The film leaves the beasts in the dark, the sounds of their cries and growls omnipresent and overwrought, piercing the dull quiet of the forest. Nestled in the gloom, the wolves shed their small, lean bodies and become giants, bleeding into the night. Meanwhile the camera keeps its distance from the men gathered around the fire. They have shape, but they feel small and insignificant.
The film anchors its existential crisis with its protagonist Ottway (Liam Neeson), who approaches the dire situation with a surprising degree of insight and tenderness. It is Ottway that explains the pack mentality of the wolves to the rest of the group (and the audience), noting that the beasts will mercilessly kill anyone and anything that encroaches on the territory surrounding their den. Soon after, the group learns the wolves have marked them for death when the beasts approach their camp at night, a brilliant scene in which wolf eyes slowly blink into existence on a pitch black screen, flickering to life like fireflies. Some time after, the wolves eviscerate a man on watch during the night. And so the desperate flight begins, as Ottway leads the group to a defensible position in the thick of the forest.
As the film goes on, we piece together Ottway’s character through small fragmented memories that infringe on the desolate surroundings. These moments fill the screen with a warmth that contrasts the inhospitable Alaskan wilderness. Most notably, an early scene accentuates the disparate worlds by Ottway’s character being jerked away from his wife’s embrace, suddenly surrounded by snow and the burning wreckage of an airplane after the crash.
However, I did find that I eventually wanted to stop jumping into these subjective memories and stay in the present moment. The tension of each scene plays out so well that any diversion not directly related to the crisis at hand felt like a lost opportunity for pacing. Also, while I felt Ottway’s relationship with his wife worked as a tender contrast to the bitter cold, the film drudges up the ghost of Ottway’s father as well and it feels like an unnecessary layer. That is not to say I do not appreciate the sentiment of building Ottway’s character. In fact, it is a rare thing to find in a suspense thriller and truly benefits the experience. I just believe the film accomplished what it needed to accomplish in the first forty minutes, well before the father comes into the fold. I would have liked to see the desperate chase and the quiet conversations between the men take over from there.
Additionally, I found myself occasionally wishing that Ottway was not so adept at handling the situation. The audience does not need a character that can take shotgun shells and sharp sticks and turn them into “boom sticks.” Honestly, it is too much, regardless of his background as a huntsman. Instead, a sharp stick and a knife would be far more accurate for the situation, and would lend a greater sense of urgency. On a spatially related but completely separate grievance, when one of the group members challenges Ottway’s right to lead, it feels orchestrated and false. Let us be honest, if a man can turn a wooden stick into a makeshift shotgun, you should fall on your knees and worship him as your undisputed leader. Anything less is just film formula drumming up unnecessary conflict.
Ultimately though, the film uses Ottway’s keen survival instinct to generate tension, as the man battles wits with the dogged wolves, growing desperate as the men around die off. The film soars at this point, because despite the grim presence of death and violence the narrative never abandons its poetic sensibilities. For instance, take a scene in which we leave Ottway’s subjective experience for Talget (Dermot Mulroney), following the man as he inches across a makeshift rope of clothes tied together, hanging near thirty or forty feet in the air, trying to escape the wolves. Instead of looking too closely at the ridiculous mechanics of the “rope,” another brilliant invention by the ever resourceful Ottway, we can benefit from examining the interplay between tension and poetry.
As Talget makes his way across the rope, he struggles to grip the clothing with his injured hand, damaged in an earlier scene. He glances at hand, and the camera cuts to a close up of blood soaking through his bandage. Almost immediately after, his glasses fall off and he is left suspended in the air, nearly blind, struggling to hold on, with a rope that might fall apart at any moment. Then, all at once, something brilliant happens: nothing. The camera waits, Talget does not move, and the viewer slowly absorbs the dread of the moment. Then the rope snaps and Talget is sent careening to the ground. As he lies on the snow, battered from the fall, he witnesses a hallucination of his daughter looming over him. Only when we leave Talget’s subjective experience do we realize that the wolves have already begun to ravage his body.
Honestly, I would hesitate to approve of switching our point of view at this moment, which is in fact the first time we do so, but the scene works so well that I cannot rightly disparage it. And this sentiment carries through the film. At times, I felt the unwelcome presence of exposition or formula and I cringed a bit, as jaded film critics do. However, for the most part the film crafts a surprisingly understated meditation on death and survival, completely uncommon to the genre.
Consider, as an encapsulating moment, a scene early on in the film. Men are at work in an Alaskan oil field and a lone wolf charges them, unnoticed save by Ottway who is tasked to patrol the perimeter. Ottway calmly takes out a sniper rifle, burying a bullet in the creature just as it approaches the men. In a lesser film, it would leave this moment as a quiet foreboding of the violence to come. However, the film follows with a simple poetic gesture: Ottway slowly trudges up to wolf’s side and stays there as it dies, placing his hand over the wolf’s rib cage, feeling the creature breathe in and out. From this moment on, the film uses brooding silence and bursts of frantic violence as if they were kindred to each other, inseparable. After a while, the distinction evaporates and we are left only with rude death and the quiet that surrounds it.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Read Steven Harrison Gibbs’s review of The Grey here.