Initial reaction to The Grey (Carnahan, 2012) was filled with pleasant critical surprise due to a compelling subtext supplementing its survival action thrills. This subtext has been described by some critics as “existential” and so — however much that word may be bandied about these days — I was interested in the film. To be sure, “existential” is an apt term to describe much of the film’s philosophical discourse. Its existential themes are mostly evident in the narratives bookends: The Grey begins and ends with its protagonist, John Ottway (Liam Neeson), alone. At first he is wondering if his alienated situation is humanity’s damned plight; in the end he is resolved to fight against that plight.
Ottway’s existential crisis becomes pronounced when he goes down in a plane crash in middle-of-nowhere Alaska. He survives the crash along with several other men but now — severed from the conventional protections of society — they are left to fend for themselves in the wild. Their fight is against freezing cold, a shortage of food, and a hungry, rabid pack of wolves. But, perhaps worst of all, their fight is against increasing hopelessness. There’s a kind of indifferent naturalism overshadowing the survivors in Carnahan’s film. Ottway and his decreasing pack of survivors find themselves lost and ever-closer to death’s door. Cries for help seem ineffective. Their helpless, disoriented state pushes each of the men to desperation.
Yet, long before Ottway and his Alaskan oil-drilling team of ex-convicts and outcasts go down in a plane crash, he is on the edge of the abyss. He’s a man who is fast losing any reason to go on living. Both haunted and reassured by memories of his wife, Ottway is already beset with despair, and, early in the film, his despair seems tinged with anger, if not regret.
Fairly early, the film’s subtext becomes clear. After seeing several men die right in their midst, the remaining survivors huddle together and the conversation takes an angst-ridden philosophical turn. Why are they still alive? Was it “ordained” or “blind luck?” Diaz (Frank Grillo) — the ruffian provocateur of the bunch — is almost offended at the question: “Fate doesn’t give a f***,” he exclaims. Ottway doesn’t seem to disagree with Diaz. He “wishes” he could believe in God, but, for reasons unknown to us at the time, he can’t. Later, after several tussles due to Diaz’s defiance of his leadership, Ottway confronts him for not acknowledging his fear. Both Ottway and Diaz seem to have dispossessed souls, but while Ottway fights his acknowledged fear, Diaz acts as if he is unafraid. Ottway battles against life’s cruelty until the end, while Diaz would rather give up than face a destructive existence that awaits his potential survival.
One of The Grey’s most significant problems is a predictability that seems governed by life’s supposed ontic cruelty. Not only is it almost certain that Neeson’s character is going to be the last one remaining, but the others’ deaths are sometimes laughably predictable, the only source of light in what is often an assaultingly grim experience. At what seems like the film’s climactic moment of anguish, Ottway, all alone in the Alaskan wilderness now, cries out to God for help in a profanity-laced tirade. Yelling at the sky, he calls God “fraudulent” and pleads “show me something real!” When there’s no answer in the way that he’s demanded, Ottway, in what is pitched as a heroic moment, states that he’ll do it himself.
Ottway is in the middle of the wolves’ den, and he alone must fight against a god seemingly identified with a heartless nature. Having saved the wallets for the families of the deceased, Ottway takes a tragic look at the familial mementos that fill each of the wallets. On the film’s terms, all that we have to cherish in this world is each other: if we lose our loved ones, then all is lost. And since we will lose them, then emptiness — nothingness — is our fate. All that remains is striving to survive.
What a shame that these wallets don’t function to reassure Ottway in some small but powerful way — a shame that his fears were not assuaged by the truth of humanity’s desire for home in the fullest sense. Perhaps the significance of the wallets’ contents could better clarify the seemingly gray fog of God’s transcendence and humanity’s existence than a relentless pack of wolves in the dead of an Alaskan blizzard. Faith being belief in the evidence of things unseen, these wallets — along with Ottway’s persevering commitment to help his comrades survive, and even the film’s serious treatment of death — pose quite a formidable case for something at the heart of existence that is less dire than man versus wild.