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.


  1. Whoever counted that many f words is a champ. (Me? I would have just said “many f words.”

    That count seems high. I’m not saying the count is off, but I think it seems high because I don’t think the majority of those f’s were “obscene” in the particular way I want to use that word. In other words, if a bunch of ex-cons and hardened outcasts are caught in a life or death survival situation, I’m going to be suspicious if they have “clean” mouths. (the f’s were appropriate to the “scene.”).

    I was more put off by the film’s grim metaphysical view of things.

  2. PluggedIn counts the expletives to the jot and tittle. I found out about it because me and a friend were talking about movies coming out and I said something about The Grey. He said he thought about it and looked it up on PluggedIn. When I saw that it had 150 f-bombs and 50 s-bombs among other profanities I thought, “Do the wolves cuss as well?” Bad meta-physics plus profanity tirades? Yeesh. I’d rather go to the dentist and get a tooth drilled.

  3. I saw the movie last weekend with my wife (wonderful date movie).

    I find it completely believable how Ottway and the rest could come to those conclusions about God and existence. In fact, I’d bet many believers would begin to have doubts in that “storm”. Ottway, especially, seems to know that they were dead the moment the plane crashes. Their slow-burn death march could hardly do much to inspire anything other than despair and anger.

    Jon ends up believing that the best he can manage is to “not go quietly.” In his mind, he has abased himself completely cannot explain why God would not step in. I can certainly see how many people who have experienced such dark circumstances can come to that conclusion, however misguided it may be in reality.

  4. Hey Matt,

    Believable, sure. But I think it’s helpful to remember that Ottway and Diaz had essentially come to that conclusion before this wintry hell-storm. (And why do their reactions seem to overshadow the others’ more hopeful reactions?).

    More importantly, I’m less interested in Ottway’s reaction to his dark circumstances and more interested in the film’s treatment of his reaction. Using the circumstances in the way that it does beats the audience over the head with a relentless (predictable) pummeling. And then it says, “this is how life ultimately is.” Maybe so for some people, but I don’t think hopelessness that it’s an ontological reality.

    I have less of a problem with Ottway “not going quietly” and more of a problem with his celebrated “I’ll do it myself.” Good luck with that! Of course there have been many who have had to follow in Job’s footsteps. It’d be nice if, somehow, there was a glint of hope or gratitude in the midst of suffering, and not just a “man up and face the brutality of existence” ending.

    It’s perfectly expected for people in their position to be hopeless or feeling like God isn’t there, but that’s quite a different thing than the film suggesting that that’s therefore the way things are. And I think that suggestion is there.

  5. Nick,

    Thanks for the reply.

    I understand what you mean. My question is just this: Why should we expect the movie to project something more hopeful? I think it’s just being honest. If a movie is reflecting the director’s worldview, then I think it’s helpful for Christians to realize that there are many people out there that share those views.

    My takeaway from this movie was: “Wow. I need to remember what it must feel like to have no hope in Christ.” But if it had ended with Liam laying on the snow dying, but feeling a last ray of sunshine that restores his belief in God, then I could take something away from that too.

    In the end, it’s a tragic story. And I think there’s a place for that.

  6. Well, you’ve said two separate things in your last comment:

    -A comment about the director’s worldview.

    -A place for a tragic story.

    I certainly agree with the second point, but if I think a film is making a philosophical point about the way things are (ultimately speaking) that I think is deceiving, then I think it’s my job as a critic to question it. I’m not saying that people would not respond in the way Ottway did given his circumstances, but I’m saying it’s possible for a director to show us something that the character in the movie does not see. There were opportunities for that here, and they may even hold up in spite of the film’s grim view of things, but ultimately they get overshadowed. The emphasis seemed clear.

    To be clear, I’m not approaching this saying, “Ottway should have seen the light or had a helicopter come for him when he called out to God.” I’m saying the director took that one person’s plight and made a bit of an inferring statement with it. He took one man’s sense of hopelessness and seemed to say that human existence is ultimately hopeless.

    The same exact situation could have unfolded without taking that stance.

    I’m also not saying that that means the movie wasn’t worth watching or that it didn’t have worthwhile moments or take-aways. Thanks for the interaction!

  7. I got stirred up inside (angry) at the protagonist’s presumption that God would just drop down and hand him a working cell phone, or make the wolves become vegetarian all of a sudden. The whole situation culminated in a stark display of the futility of living without faith, always demanding some material evidence for the metaphysical.

    That critical moment, when he decides to do it himself, he wonders right into the wolves’ den, which to me is exactly what happens to those journeying through the world on the shoulders of man. To me, there was a great truth there. He battled his demons with literal booze bottles, and as for the ending (and the thematic poem of his father) I was left thinking “now, was it really enough just to fight? What of victory or defeat? Can meaning really be found only in the struggle?” What do people do when they reject an afterlife? They place a disproportionate importance on and abscribe false meaning to “this life.”

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