“The Grey:” Existentialist wolves

The Existentialist Alpha Male

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 Grey Alpha
The Grey Alpha

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.”

♥♥ Two Socks! ♥♥

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.

Real wolves

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.”

A very controversial film

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.

Death catches up
Death catches up

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.

17 thoughts on ““The Grey:” Existentialist wolves”

  1. Yay for Two Socks!! Great review Haruko. I don’t think I’ll bother to see this movie.

  2. Good review, Haruko. Alas, anyone looking for accuracy–historical, biological, etc — in any film is on a fool’s errand. I remember watching the movie “Always,” which was a romance set in the course of fighting wild fires. And in one sequence, a hand line crew is trapped by the flames and runs UPHILL to get away from the fire. Very dumb, because fire going uphill pre-heats the fuel and burns faster. And the crew had a chainsaw operator and his sapper. I found myself yelling “Drop the effing chainsaw, idiot” in the crowded movie theater.
    Beware of directors claiming they are accurate. In a recent remake of the Joan of Arc story, the director spoke of doing three weeks of exhaustive research. Pack of lunchmeat, if you ask me.

  3. Well written Haruko. I really enjoyed all your points! I know I will pass on this movie. Too often these writers and directors ascribe to animals all the worst traits of humans. Too many people who do not live near the wilderness, as we do, believe all the claptrap they see in these movies.

  4. I loved this movie. And I don’t want to kill wolves. Nor think they should be killed.
    Get your head around that.

  5. A great movie..as it should be entertaining..exciting…and remember…it’s a movie….the wolves indeed are ‘supernatural’ almost..the loss of metaphors on people..especially those who deem themselves the critic…is more telling regards them…than on the story telling prowess of the writers and directors of this movie in particular.

  6. The wolves in this movie are mostly CGI’d in. And from what you have written that means if I watch fight club I am going to go create and mimic what I see on TV. There is not going to be a mass slaughter of wolves. Your head would probably explode if you saw Brotherhood of the Wolf.

    1. Thank you for commenting.

      Actually, if you have been paying attention, there HAS been a mass slaughter of wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in the past year. More than 1,000 wolves slaughtered in those three states in 2012.

  7. Let’s start with the parts of the film you inaccurately commented on, shall we? first, the the night scene that gives us our first fill body view of one of these wolves is not the alpha, as you claim it is. Dialogue reveals that this is an outcast sent by the alpha. Second, Liam doesn’t ask God for help near the end of the film, he challenges his existence further. Saying “show me something real!” Faced with the brutal cold, starvation, the pack of wolves constantly pursuing him, he still holds true to his doubts regarding the almighty. He wasn’t a man of faith, even after somehow surviving certain death for 48 hours or so. Nothing sours a movie review more than misrepresenting the occurrences within the film. (also “Indians… before recorded history…”) come on man. You open your article stating your bias against the movie before you saw it, then proceed to give your readers false descriptions of events that occur, throw in a racial slur here, your opinion about 2 socks there, & you have a condemning review of an action/survival movie that actually delivers exactly what it’s selling. Harsh conditions, certain death, the human strife. Readers, if you enjoy this kind of movie, I assure you, you will not be disappointed. The film is good, you should give it a watch.

    1. Racial slur? Not sure what you’re referring to. The use of the word “Indians?” My boyfriend is Cree/Assiniboine and I live in Indian Country and live amongst Indians and can tell you Indians do not have a problem with that term, in fact, most prefer that term to “Natives.” Spend some time with Indians before you accuse me of being a racist. One of Sherman Alexie’s best known books is “the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” Perhaps you can ask him if it’s a slur.

      Secondly, the night scene I was referring to was when the pack of wolves first appeared outside the campsite. The closeup was of the Alpha, not the Omega. That scene was later.

      Thirdly, what I condemn about the movie is its incredibly inaccurate portrayal of wolves. As a straight up “action flick” it works, but it spreads a lot of false information about wolves.

      Fourthly, here is the line from Ottway at the end, sounds like begging to me, and it sounds like Ottway badly wants to believe in God:

      “Do something. You phony prick. Fraudulent motherfucker.
      “Do something! Come on! Prove it! Fuck faith! Earn it! Show me something real! I need it now, not later! Now! Show me and I’ll believe in you until the day I die! I swear. I’m calling on you! I’m calling on you!”

      You’re welcome to your interpretation, but that’s mine.

      Thank you for your comment, but please give a moment’s pause before you start accusing people of being racist.

  8. Let me start this by saying that I am not trying to argue or even state you are wrong because I am NOT an animal expert although I do know a lot of useless animal information (haha). I did find your opinion very interesting to read and hope that my post does not offend you because that’s not the intention, it’s meant just as information and even a personal opinion.

    Anyway wolves are far more protective when ANY creature is encroaching on their den, even if it’s a bear. But if they know they don’t stand a chance they will tuck tail and run (although if it’s a whole pack against one bear, I’d assume they’d scare it off or possibly kill it), so if you think about it, these were weak and wounded men that are moving CLOSER to the den where the wolves live and possibly have puppies located (I don’t know wolf breeding season honestly). Also, these humans didn’t kill the wolves for sport or fun (which has been reported in a lot of cases BEFORE this movie came out), it was self-defense and they did eat the one they killed and even when that guy cut that same wolf’s head off, it was to prove a point to himself more so than the wolves. Granted, as far as I know and have heard/seen, wolves are not vengeful creatures.

    Nothing I’m saying is to intentionally disagree with you, expect I did personally enjoy the movie and the way I found myself interpreting it which could be different from everyone else and that’s fine. Everyone has their own opinions and feelings, but I don’t think boycotting the movie will solve anything. People will kill wolves (and have killed them a lot in the past without provocation) whether or not they see this movie because there are other movies and other stories that do talk about the possible, although mostly inaccurate, attacks of wolves and many more creatures. Humans are known for hunting and killing animals to extinction without having to see a movie or read anything about it. An Asian country (can’t remember exactly which one) killed so many dolphins that the water on the shoreline and out some ways into the sea was RED with the blood of the dolphins. There was the killing of the Bison/Buffalo when what are now called Americans first came over here. So to say this movie will necessarily make people hate wolves (most people do anyway due to misinformation) and go out to hunt them for sport is a bit inaccurate and a universal statement that, like this movie, gives the human population as a whole a bad name. Sorry for the extra long post.

    1. Thank you for commenting.

      I agree The Grey is an effective, frightening, intense movie.

      What I object to is the depiction of wolves “hunting” humans. They simply do not do this.

      I honestly think the movie is an existential allegory basically, and an effective one.

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