I went in to “The Grey” with my mind made up I was going to hate the movie, but then found it weirdly compelling for its existentialist themes. I knew this would be a highly controversial movie, many environmental groups have railed against the film. I was ready to defend its allegorical message … then I read an interview with the director Joe Carnahan claiming that his movie accurately depicted wolves, rambling about some “superpack” in Siberia that slaughters everything in its path. I found another interview in which he defends the wolves as just being metaphors for nature (so it sounds like he is playing both sides.) It reminded me of Zach Snyder, who gave interviews defending the accuracy of “300.”
I saw the wolves as metaphors for death and the fear of mortality always nipping at all our heels. I certainly didn’t see them as real wolves.
The cleverly done CGI wolves in “The Grey” were far too big (in one scene, the alpha male of the is about the size of a small lion), too black (virtually every wolf in the movie has black fur) far too vicious (killing for revenge and trespassing and playing mind games with their victims) and even psychotic. They didn’t act like real wolves; they didn’t even sound like wolves. Their growls were actually the growls of lions or tigers and their howls were the yippings of hyenas. I much preferred “Two Socks” in “Dances with Wolves.”
Many people will say, “it’s just a movie,” yet after Jaws, sharks were slaughtered by the thousands worldwide, in part because of the hysteria created by the film. “300,” helped do its share to create and inflame the narrative that Iranians and Easterners in general are evil, while it was the West and West alone that promoted freedom and justice. (Never mind the fact Spartans owned slaves and raped and murdered in conquest.). In fact, in many ways, “The Grey” reminded me a lot of “300,” — a technically well made movie that nonetheless embraces ignorance. Both movies are essentially fantasies.
I live in the American West, and I can’t buy into the rhetoric that “it’s just a movie.” I wish Carnahan had been a lot more assertive about that in some of his interviews. I live in country where wolves are considered the epitome of pure evil by many people. The stories run rampant in the West from hunters and ranchers of wolves stalking and chasing hunters and killing livestock out of pure malice. These stories have all been proved to be false. There is no evidence of wolves stalking humans and wolves do not kill for no reason. If they kill a sheep and leave it, that’s because they are caching it for later. Live in the West long enough and you will hear, “sooner or later they’re going to kill a baby.”
Wolves have come to weirdly represent everything wrong in America to some people — the federal government, environmentalists, rules, regulations. Wolves have become a metaphor for an out-of-control government bent on meddling in the lives of locals.
In reality, wolves are just animals. Animals at the top of the food chain that eat to survive. In fact, wolves have killed a grand total of two people in recorded history — two people in the past 150 years (perhaps wolves have killed some Indians before recorded history, but likely, this was very rare, as well.). More people than that die every year in the U.S. from domestic dog attacks.
Back to the film. In “The Grey,” the wolves are not just animals, but devils lurking in the mists and trees, waiting to claim their victims. The movie, filmed in British Columbia, takes place in the Alaskan winter. A motley crew of oil workers returning from a long shift in north Alaska, are plunged into terror after a plane crash. It is a grim, brutal, bleak movie.
One by one, the black devils, patient and efficient, come out of the mists and snow and take another victim. The survivors run, but they can’t hide from death. Each man faces their mortality differently, some stoic, others giving in to panic and then finally acceptance of their fate much like someone dying of cancer, while lead Liam Neeson like many of us, continues to fight and struggle against the inevitability of death because that is all he knows to do.
Two scenes in this movie stuck with me. One was a night scene in which the impossibly huge alpha male makes his first appearance. All you see is a single eye gleaming in the firelight (all CGI), the eye flickers from one survivor to the other, then the wolf retreats into the black. The message is sent. “You have all been noted.”
The other is when Neeson’s will is finally broken near the end of the movie. Earlier in the movie, the survivors talk about their faith. Neeson, contemplating suicide earlier in the movie, speaks of his atheism. After watching the rest of the survivors succumb, Neeson finally breaks down and asks God for help, but finds nothing in the grey sky. And finally mutters to himself, “fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”
Many of the survivors have reasons to struggle. Families and children back home. So they fight to survive and fend off death. The person who gives up admits he has nothing to live for, he has led an utterly empty life. In the end, we find Neeson has nothing to live for, as well. As he is surrounded by the demons of the snow and they back off and out of the mist enters the giant alpha. Liam Neeson decides to fight to the bitter end, facing death in his way, fighting for the sake of fighting, for the sake of life itself.
Again, powerful metaphor. Powerful allegory. Too bad the poor wolves are picked upon to represent it.