July 13, 2012 by Ray Yanek
The internet is filled with all sorts of pictures (memes?) purporting that actor Liam Neeson can now add punching the shit out of alpha wolves to his resume of general bad-assery—which also includes training Obi Wan Kenobi, yelling “RELEASE THE KRAKEN!” and of course this:
Seriously, Neeson must have one of the best agents in Hollywood.
Anyway, the concept of Liam Neeson as wolf-brawling hard-ass stems from his role as John Ottway in the movie The Grey. At first look, the film presents itself as a “man’s movie” about survival, about our battle versus nature, and about overcoming insurmountable odds. But the movie is so much more than that. The thrills and beautiful cinematography are there, yes. Some of the typical trappings and predictability of the thriller become apparent, true. But the movie takes a commercial risks. It attempts to blend the big-budget action/thriller genre with, dare I say, literary and philosophical elements. The movie becomes almost allegorical as the trek through the wilderness mirrors man’s journey through a world that sometimes doesn’t seem to give a damn about us.
And I admired that the movie tried to do this.
Oh, and Liam Neeson tapes broken airline bottle of vodka to his knuckles and punches the shit out of a wolf.
Based on Ian Makenzie Jeffer’s novella Ghost Walkers, the movie focuses on hunter John Ottway (played by Neeson), who works to protect employees from marauding wolves at a petroleum plant in the far north. Ottway is a man haunted by his past and finds himself at home among the other felons and lost souls working far from normal society. When the work season comes to an end, the workers board a plane that will take them back to civilization. Nature has other plans however, and a freak storm causes the plan to crash, leaving only seven survivors (including Ottway). Far from help and civilization, the men must battle both the elements and a blood-thirsty pack of particularly nasty wolves intent on making the men into a tasty snack.
At times the movie becomes rather predictable and it does fall into the common trappings of the thriller genre. That predictability however, didn’t keep me from screaming like a sissy in more than one place.
But what captivated me more, was what happens in the down-time between encounters with the wolves.
It was in this down time where I started to notice all the nods to Jack London and the literary field of Naturalism.
Let me preface is by saying it’s been a long time since I’ve read London or any traditional naturalist authors, so my understanding of the period isn’t the greatest. This will be a cursory and superficial look at best, but maybe it will be enough to garner your interest. I should also say that this will include some spoilers. I’ll avoid those as much as possible, but if you haven’t seen the movie it would still be worth a look despite the spoilers.
Like in London’s Call of the Wild (and also Golding’s Lord of the Flies) the movie shows man reverting back to his primitive state when taken from shell of civilization. This is most apparent when one of the survivors utilizes a pocket knife to decapitate a wolf the men are spit-roasting, then holds up the severed head and proposes to the rest of the wolves that they, and I’m paraphrasing: “come-fucking-git-sum”.
Also, and more notably, like in London’s “To Build a Fire” The Grey supports the idea of determinism, which says that things happen both in life and nature for no real reason. It’s a bleak view, one that suggests that really, no matter what we do or what decisions we make, we ultimately have no control over the events we’re faced with. Nature, and by association the power that governs the rules of nature, will do what it will regardless of our attempts to direct or fashion it. In “To Build A Fire”, for example, we see frail man struggling to survive in extreme cold, yet despite his best efforts, nature remains unforgiving even of the smallest mistake the man makes while trying to build his fire. In The Grey, on the most basic level, there is the storm-fueled plane accident. And despite the best efforts of the survivors, it’s a cruel twist of ‘luck’ that ultimately leads the survivors exactly where they do not want to be—in the heart of the wolves’ den. This element of suffering through unforeseen events out of our control plays a pivotal role in Ottway’s backstory as well. Those events, not Ottway himself, fashion the man that he is and the philosophical angst.
But like London’s story, The Grey doesn’t show Nature as cruel, just indifferent. Amoral and uncaring. It suggests that we are alone in this world and at the mercy of forces that have no real interest in our plight or existence. Life and nature move forward regardless of what we do, following its own set of rules with little regard to us.
The Grey goes a step further though, and argues that as humans we do have one choice. It’s a choice that Ottway must make in a very interesting ending. We see that it’s a choice Ottway has had to make all along.
As the ending approached, I have to admit that—like most others who watched the movie—I put the popcorn down, sat forward in my chair and punched my palm as I waited for Neeson to deliver that wolf- bastard his come-uppance.
I soon found my fist open and both palms (one a little redder than the other) turned up to the ceiling as I muttered something more couthly translated as “what the hell, man?”
I muttered that because there was no ending—or at least the type of ending I’ve come to expect from a Hollywood action film. But after calming down and putting all that testosterone back in the bottle (and mentally apologizing to wolves the word over) I realized that the ending was even better, far better for the story, than what I expected to happen. I knew though, people would be pissed.
Just a reminder that this is a spoiler alert. Despite all the hoopla, the wolf-punching and Neeson-shredding happens off stage and we never learn the outcome of that final confrontation. The plot arc is left unresolved and really, the outcome doesn’t need to be resolved. It’s really not that important.
What is resolved though, is Ottway’s character arc, and that’s the key to the story. Although the plot propels the thriller/action portion of the movie forward, it’s the character that drives the true story behind all the action. Despite all the stuff about Neeson punching wolves and even though his character is established as the alpha male of the group, that character is much, much more than a one-dimensional, overly-macho action hero.
And I truthfully enjoyed that part of the movie the most—even more so than finally figuring out what to do with that crate of empty airline liquor bottles behind the garage.
One More Thing:
A little while after watching the movie, I read somewhere that the director slipped in another scene after the credits—which a lot of movies seem to be doing. When I heard that, I was a bit disappointed. I guessed that scene must have wrapped up the plot and I saw it as sort a cop-out. After reading about what the scene contains, I don’t feel that way anymore. From what I understand, that added scene stays true to the themes of the movie, and really I’m not entirely sure why it was included as it doesn’t seem to change much about the ending.
So if you’ve seen the movie, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave me a comment. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s worth the couple bucks to rent it.