This weekend, I went to the theater to go see “The Grey” again, this time with my father. Aside from just being nice to my dad by escorting him to the theater in hopes of quelling the resentment he felt toward me for seeing it without him, I had been thinking about the film all throughout the week at school. It resonated unusually strong with me since the Friday it was released, and it made me ponder long after the credits rolled and the theater employee with the big sweeper came in to…eh, “clean up” the place for the next showing. A second viewing was inevitable. I wanted to support it and spread word of its goodness far and wide, but I also wanted to see if it was as potent on a second go-around.
And sure enough, the “wow” factor remained equal to, if not greater than, seeing it for the first time. If you are one of those meticulous types who catch my every activity on the blog, you might have noticed yesterday that I revised my original verdict from a three-and-a-half star rating to a four-star-rating, the highest possible honor I can bestow on a movie. This is a flawless movie for me. It is hardly even the second month of 2012, but I am fully willing to extrapolate that “The Grey” will stick around until my annual Best of The Year list. It is exciting, tense, violent and dark, but it is also endlessly thought-provoking, heart-wrenching, intelligent and expertly executed. Especially when considering how modest the premise is that we have to work with (Liam Neeson and others crash in the snow and have to survive and not get ambushed by rabid wolves. GO!).
Yet there are still a number of people I talk to who said that they couldn’t quite get with the direction it went in the final five minutes. I could take the easy way out and simply say these people are morons (come on, I’m kidding!), but so much of the film’s perfection lies in its ending. With that said, here is my interpretation of the end, as well as a few other things I picked up on. It should be a given that this will be a very SPOILER-centric episode, so if you have not seen “The Grey” and do not want important plot points disclosed, read at your own discretion (meaning: click out of this window, go see the movie right now, and come back). If you do choose to read ahead without having seen the movie…seriously, shame on you. You deserve to have a hungry pack of wildebeests sadistically descend upon you and swim in the blood of your children.
Is everybody gone now? Good. So the first time I saw “The Grey,” I watched it as I would any other movie for the first time: it was an experience of discovery. I was anticipating the surprises around every corner and marinating in the film’s unwaveringly chilly atmosphere. The second viewing was completely different. Of course, I knew now what was going to happen to people by the end, but I felt more a sense of mounting dread and despair than before. This is one tragic survival story made all the more tragic by the inclusion of highly fleshed-out characters who are not just broad types.
So let’s get into what the big audience controversy has been all about: the ending. If you’ve already seen the movie, you know that Liam Neeson’s character John Ottway is slogging through a snowy wasteland all by his lonesome, the other six survivors of the pivotal plane crash having been engulfed by the hostile environment and the numerous hazards it had to offer. He knows that defeat is slowly peeking its head from around the corner and staring him down until he finally concedes to its bloodthirsty desires.
This is already kind of strange that he is still trying to stay alive. The night before he boarded the plane to transport the petroleum refinery employees to Anchorage, Ottway was contemplating suicide, even to the degree that he composed a death note and physically placed the barrel of a shooting rifle into his mouth. He was almost certain that he no longer had a purpose in this world after his wife left him. Memories of her continue to haunt every waking second of his consciousness, and her parting words replay over and over in his head: “Don’t be afraid.” The final scene reveals a memory in which the woman is connected to an I.V. at the hospital. She didn’t leave Ottway so much as God (the same God whom he cursed just moments before this recollection) had to take her away from the world.
In the single most poignant scene in the movie, Ottway falls to his knees, reaches into his knapsack and takes out all of the wallets he had been gathering from the crew as they bit the dust one-by-one. As he opens each of them one at a time, he mournfully observes the photographs in each. He sees men he once knew. He sees these men smiling, enjoying their lives. For how few words were exchanged while everyone was still alive, it doesn’t take long for Ottway to realize that these people had things worth living for. In the pictures, they have wives, sons, daughters and relatives, to whom they surely meant the world to.
As he lays each of the wallets in the snow, he hears sounds coming from all around him; the Alaskan wolves have him cornered from every angle. As he points out, he is in the middle of their den, of which they are incredibly territorial and unforgiving towards any poor creature that dares to tread on their turf. A black wolf, presumably the alpha, appears at the top of a hill overseeing Ottway, who is now gearing up to battle to the death with the animal opponent. He has a knife tethered into one clenched hand and some broken miniature bottles in the other. He lunges forward, and…cut to black, followed by a few dismayed groans from certain members of the audience.
These are the same unanimous reactions I heard after seeing the contemptible found-footage horror flick “The Devil Inside” just a few weeks prior. Groans akin to waking up in the late afternoon to the most debilitating hangover following a killer kegger the night before. I cannot say I was shocked by this general response, but I was indeed disappointed with what I was hearing. Think about it: we just spent an agonizingly brutal two hours watching people go through the arctic equivalent of Hell, desperately hoping to find civilization. We were put through the wringer when we realized “Damn, these characters will never see their loved ones again.” We watched as these poor, hopeless men got torn apart limb from limb by wild animals, drowned in the freezing river, and even died from the level of oxygen at the given altitude. THE FREAKING AIR WASN'T EVEN ON THEIR SIDE!!! And you guys were STILL holding out for a pay-per-view spectacle of Neeson vs. the wolves?
You see, the difference is really quite simple to draw between “The Grey” and “The Devil Inside.” After all, there is QUITE a difference between 1) lazily slapping together a cop-out ending that solves nothing and sticks a big middle finger in the face of everybody who paid their hard-earned cash hoping to see at least a PASSABLE exorcism movie, and 2) wrapping up a film at its most logical conclusion…can you guess which category “The Devil Inside” falls into?
No, the supposedly climactic duel between man and beast is not directly resolved, nor does it need to be. That is not the focus of the film. Instead, the REAL resolution is that we have just witnessed a suicidal man whose trials and struggles have caused his outlook on life to perform a complete 180. With the death of his wife, he was willing to throw away everything he ever had. As far as he knew, he had no purpose mingling with the scum of the earth any longer. But when his plane crashes in the snow, he rises to the occasion and becomes the alpha of the small convoy of leftover employees. Suicide is no longer on his mind. In fact, he guides these men to safety as far as he possibly can before they inexorably become doggy chow. To the best of his abilities, he is saving lives instead of ending his own. By the end, he comes to the conclusion that the gift of life is a gift worth fighting for, even if circumstances seem utterly hopeless (and boy, do they seem hopeless). As the wolves circle in on him, he firmly decides that if he is going to die at this moment, he will die a noble and courageous death. Something I noticed is that he also wore a watch/GPS device of some kind that one of the other guys carried on the arduous journey. Along with the wallets carefully arranged in the snow, I got the impression that Ottway wasn’t the only person he was fighting for; he was also defending the legacy of everybody who was present on the plane that fateful day. He is fighting for their families. For their kids. For all the people that will never see any of them again.
It doesn’t matter if he wins or loses. For it is the last good fight he’ll ever know.
But this leads to an even greater question about the final five-second stinger that appears after all of the credits have rolled. The shot briefly shows the alpha’s chest as it breathes an exhausted breath. The back of Ottway’s head is shown resting on top the wolf’s stomach as it exhales. This has led to a number of possible theories about how the fight turned out. Perhaps Ottway defeated the alpha and now the rest of the pack won’t mess with him. Perhaps he killed all of the wolves single-handedly (I don’t want to think that; it just wouldn’t gel with the rest of the movie). Maybe the alpha didn’t die and it is only a matter of time before he snaps and really lays the smack-down on Ottway.
However, I am of the opinion that Ottway squared off against the alpha, both were equally matched and both defeated each other. The alpha is breathing just like the wolf Ottway killed at the start of the film, so it will presumably die shortly thereafter. And Ottway’s head does not move at all while positioned on its stomach, so if he is by some miracle still alive, he probably suffered enough to where he cannot possibly last for much longer. It may not be a happy ending, but not every movie can warm your heart like butter on a biscuit. The fact that this one shot has so many people debating and sharing their thoughts on the matter gives me hope. It means that the film is surely doing something right.
Either way, “The Grey” is perfect in my eyes from start to finish. I will probably see it several more times before the year is over. Rumor has it that it might get redistributed in theaters in late fall or early winter to get a little push during awards season. Could this get nominated for an Oscar come January 2013? I would love to think so, but my guess is no. For as intelligent and brilliant as the film is, it just strikes me as something too gloomy and too discouraging for the Academy’s traditionally warm, cuddly and play-it-safe sensibilities. It is just too early to predict right now. After all, “The Silence Of The Lambs” was released at the beginning of 1991 and dominated the Oscar race. I’ll be the one guy championing a Best Actor nomination for Liam Neeson.