Tuesday, January 31, 2012


I have had the pleasure of watching Joe Carnahan's grim, thrilling masterpiece The Grey twice over the last five days.  Both viewings cemented one clear fact -- Carnahan has made a quantum leap as a filmmaker (previously excelling with Narc, moving laterally with Smokin' Aces, and then regressing with The A-Team).  This is a tremendous piece a work, a serious movie made by a ballsy filmmaker who wants to be taken seriously.  The themes that The Grey explores -- death, isolation, the randomness of things, your willingness and desire to fight against all odds -- are elements that everyone will face at some point in their lives, just probably not in the ways that the characters in The Grey take them on.  I could go on and on about what I love about the film -- the poetry of the narration, the muscular and oppressively cold cinematography, the cutting and mournful musical score, the splendid performances from the rugged ensemble, the absolutely magnetic Liam Neeson in the lead role -- The Grey has it all.  But this is not a formal review.  I want to discuss the ending.  Because what sets this film apart from so many other similar tales of survival is its ending. And it's here where I will embark into MASSIVE SPOILER TERRITORY, so you've been warned.

Everyone dies by the end of The Grey.  The film is about a group of men miraculously surviving a harrowing plane crash, finding themselves in tundra-esque conditions in the middle of a blizzard in Alaska, with no food, water, weapons, or help.  As one of the characters proclaims while rummaging through the plane crash debris: "I found a book -- it's called 'We're All Fucked.'"  One by one, each survivor falls to the elements or to the wolves (some face both at the time of their death) until we're left with just Liam Neeson.  The final moments of The Grey find Neeson's character (Ottway) trapped in the den of the wolves that have been stalking and killing all of the survivors of the plane crash.  Ottway, knowing that he's outnumbered, and after a stark and chilling moment of faith questioning, tapes a knife to one hand and some broken bottles to the other, and squares off against the "alpha wolf" in a fight to the death.  Of course, it would be needless (and amazingly pointless) to show Ottway ACTUALLY FIGHTING the wolf, so Carnahan, wisely, artfully smash-cuts-to-black as soon as Ottway takes off in the direction of the big-bad-wolf.  It's clear what the deal is -- Ottway is a man, at the end of his line (literally and metaphorically), who isn't going to die sitting down. His wife has died, he was about to commit suicide in the film's first scenes, and there's no chance of survival.  Through effective backstory, you learn that Ottway's father had written a poem when Ottway was a child:

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

If you can't read between the lines, well, you're an imbecile and you should quit while you're ahead.  The entire message of The Grey is right there in that poem.  As violent and as visceral as the wolf attacks and action scenes are, there is an underlying sadness, a lyrical quality to the movie that recalls the work of Jack London or Ernest Hemingway.  There's no way that Ottway can survive; it's just not possible, and like any realistic man, he knows it.  But that's beside the point -- it's not about if he lives or dies in the final fight with the wolf -- it's that he went out like a man, on his watch, his fate in his own hands, guided by his own decisions.  But for some reason, both times I've seen the movie, half of the theater is essentially ready to fucking riot because they've been "cheated" out of a scene that the trailers have promised them -- that of Ottway, with glass on his knuckles, slugging it out with a wolf.  Both times people have actually verbally proclaimed their distaste with the ending (and then with the film), and how the movie "sucked" or "was awful."  You were with it for two hours and now all of a sudden the movie is a failure because you didn't see the main character get torn to shreds?  Where is your sense of imagination?  Why can't the final moments of a movie sometimes be left up to the viewer to determine what the final outcome is?  It's so incredible that so many people seem to actively hate the idea of using their brains while they're being entertained.

The problem is -- how do you sell a depressing, introspective, at times existentialist meditation on death to the masses?  What you do is have the marketing team cut a totally disingenuous trailer that highlights the four action beats in the entire movie, while leaving out all the rest of it -- the quiet reflection, the conversations about god and faith and what it means to be a man staring down the certain inevitability of death.  But this is nothing new -- studios cut misleading trailers all the time (see The American or Haywire for further proof) --because if they didn't then every fifth movie would immediately die at the box office.  But what it does is unfairly set totally unrealistic expectations for the audience.  People are going into The Grey thinking they're about to see Liam Neeson have a boxing match with wolves.  It's Taken with Wolves!  Now, just to be clear, if that's what you really want to see -- men punching wolves -- then you're a fucking idiot and there's no helping you.  However, if what you were looking for was an empty action film with a big fight finale, then, yeah, I can see how you might be upset, because The Grey is not that film, and based on the trailers, you'd be right in thinking that that's what the movie was going to be like.  And as much as I hate the term "thinking person's action film," because in reality, all movies should make you think, I think that's what The Grey is.  We've become accustomed to rank stupidity when we go to the movies, which is a shame; the days of the ambiguous ending are far behind us.


DA said...

why so angry?

Actionman said...

I'm not angry per se. I am disappointed that so many people are stupid.

amckay said...

I didn't like this movie. Not only because of the ending, or the misleading trailer, but just the way that I didn't, nor was I really encouraged to, care about any of the characters or what happened to them. I'm a female and I watched this expecting a good quality action film (yes, I may or may not have hoped it would be in some ways similar to Taken. aka, Liam Neeson being a total badass) This movie was slow, dull, and every characters besides Neeson lacked character development. And before you say I'm stupid, I'm in my third year of a dual degree of film, english and secondary education. You can't blame people for been disappointed that they didn't get to see the scene which was advertised in the trailers. I sat, fidgeting in my chair for, as you said, two hours. And I was really hoping for just one good, bloody, disgusting scene.