Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Grey

There is a TV commercial currently airing here in Asia for the luxury Shangri-la Hotel chain that is like a gripping mini-movie. In the commercial, a man is alone in a forbidding snowbound landscape, apparently fighting to stay alive. The snow is deep and wolves are stalking him. His flashlight flickers out and he is overcome with fatigue and lies down in the snow. When the wolves approach him, they do something astonishing - they snuggle up around him, and when the man awakes he finds he is surrounded by warm sleeping wolves. Then a caption appears on the screen: "To embrace a stranger as one's own. It's in our nature."

What the commercial is supposed to mean, and how on earth it's supposed to represent Shangri-La Hotels, is subject to interpretation. But, in a powerful way, Joe Carnahan's 2011 movie, The Grey, is a perfect antidote to such unnatural nature.

The movie, with its uninspired title, is more exactly reminiscent of the world of Jack London's most elemental stories of man in extremis than any other film I've seen, especially the miserably lame movie adaptations of White Fang (1991) and The Call of the Wild (2009). Because they are narrowly regarded as "animal stories," I first encountered those books when I was in my teens in the "juvenile" section of a public library. This stupid categorization has resulted in a general underestimation of London's writing and its appeal to more than just juveniles. He was an uneven but an often serious writer whose work, inspired by an uncompromising view of the cruelties of life, is overdue for reconsideration.

The Grey is the story of seven survivors of a plane crash in the wintry Alaskan wilderness, led by John Ottway (played by Liam Neeson), a man who works for an oil pipeline company, protecting its workers from the large predators they inevitably encounter in Alaska. I lived in Anchorage for a few years. It's the largest city in the state, but if one were to take a secondary road north, south or east of the city for ten miles, especially in winter (October to April), one would be in a place remarkably similar to the one in which the seven men found themselves.

The plane crash is easily one of the most frightening of such scenes ever filmed, with unrestrained passengers depicted being thrown violently around the cabin, and the fuselage breaking off, exposing Ottway and others to the cold blast of air outside, as the plane descends. Ottway awakes, still secured to his seat, now sitting by itself in a snowy field, his face dusted with blowing snow. He finds and rescues as many men as he can find, but all but seven passengers are scattered, with the fuselage, over a large area, and wolves begin to turn up to devour their remains. Ottway takes charge, despite some resistance, and the men spend their first night taking turns watching out for the wolves. One of them, dropping his guard to urinate during the night, is found torn to pieces the following morning. Ottway determines that the group of survivors must walk to a distant forest if they are to escape the wolves.

There is an altogether unnerving moment when the men hear a wolf's growl in the dark, and Ottway grabs a flaming torch to find out where it is. All that the men can see, staring at them from the darkness, is a pair of illumined eyes, then another, and then a multitude of them, lit by the light of Ottway's torch.

From that moment, until the end of the movie, the filmmakers pursue, with commendable honesty, the grim fates of the men. The movie's lack of critical and commercial success was probably due to its very determination to be truthful to - if nothing else - the odds of survival under such circumstances. The final confrontation between Ottway and the "Alpha" wolf ends - for those who sit through the end credits - ambiguously.

There is a scene near the end of the movie that Catholic groups found objectionable in which Ottway, who has just watched the last of his companions drown, sits on the riverbank and shouts at the blank sky, "Do something! I'm calling on you!" It is Ottway's pathetic, desperate appeal for divine intervention. "Fuck faith! Earn it!" he shouts. He swears to God that, if He saves him, he'll believe in Him for the rest of his life. There were also complaints, believe it or not, about the portrayal of grey wolves in the movie. I found that the use of prosthetic wolves in some scenes was a little obvious. But at least the filmmakers avoided the horribly dishonest portrayal of the dogs in the two Jack London adaptations mentioned above.

The nearly exclusive cast of men (0ne woman and a little girl appear in flashbacks) reveals a degree of intimacy on the part of the director and script writers (1) of such places as a remote industrial outpost. Much of my experience in the military was similarly remote from the opposite sex. While not entirely like prison (it lacked only the interminability of prison), such societies suffer in many ways from the absence of women and their humanizing influence. In The Grey, the scenes in the makeshift after-hours club - the chaotic brawling, the sheer desperate exclusivity of it - comes across tellingly. The machismo among the crash survivors is chastened, but enough of it remains to create conflict. Besides Liam Neeson, still imposing at 59 when the film was made, some other notable performers, like Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney, turn up in surprising guises.

When the wolf pack shows up with its imperious hierarchy, the filmmakers obviously meant for us to notice the parallel with the hierarchy among the men. Ottway assumes leadership because he is the strongest and the ablest of the group. The strongest compete for leadership of the group, while the weakest, one after another, are killed, die of hypoxia, or just give up and, in a painfully moving scene, explain how they can't - and don't want - to go any farther.

I can't say to what extent the raw power of the movie is derived from the story, "Ghost Walker," by Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, on which it is based. The movie is reminiscent of another story, by Jack London, called "Love of Life," (2) in which a man becomes separated from his companion in the wilderness because of an injured ankle. He has a rifle, but no ammunition, and can only manage to survive the following days on some ptarmigan eggs, a few minnows, and the pink bones of a dead caribou calf. As snow begins to fall and he realizes he is starving, the man discovers that an old, sick wolf (what Ottway would've called an "Omega") is following him. He is entering a delirium brought on by starvation, and his hallucinations are hard for him to distinguish from reality.

He is finally reduced to crawling on his hands and knees. He finds more bones, and realizes they are the remains of his companion, attacked and eaten by wolves. The sick wolf continues to stalk him, approaching when he seems to fall asleep, but the wolf's wheezing breath and cough awakes the man. Finally, half-alive, the man and the wolf engage in a life-or-death struggle, with the man succeeding in biting the wolf's throat so deeply that he drinks its blood. The man is later discovered by a scientific expedition:

"From the deck they remarked a strange object on the shore. It was moving down the beach toward the water. They were unable to classify it, and, being scientific men, they climbed into the whale-boat alongside and went ashore to see. And they saw something that was alive but which could hardly be called a man. It was blind, unconscious. It squirmed along the ground like some monstrous worm. Most of its efforts were ineffectual, but it was persistent, and it writhed and twisted and went ahead perhaps a score of feet an hour."

They take the man aboard their ship, and he slowly recovers his senses and his health. He returns to civilization, but the savagery of nature that was London's subject, and the subject of Joe Carnahan's movie, is unforgettable.


(1) Joe Carnahan and Ian MacKenzie Jeffers.
(2) Both the film and the story utilize remarkably similar poems that capture their grimness. In The Grey, Ottway recites, on two occasions, a poem he believes was written by his father: "Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I'll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day." The story, "Love of Life" begins with a stanza from the poem "The Gold-Seekers" by Hamlin Garland:

This out of all will remain--
They have lived and have tossed:
So much of the game will be gain,
Though the gold of the dice has been lost.

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