Saturday, January 28, 2012

This Man's Been Dead All Along, Or Pretty Close To It

Liam Neeson as John Ottway in Joe Carnahan's "The Grey".  It's obvious he's been dead, or close to it, throughout. 
Open Road


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, January 28
, 2012

SPOILER CITY: If you have no plans to see "The Grey", read on.  But if you plan to see it, my strong advice would be to avoid reading on any further as many of the events in the film are mentioned here.  Please read this essay after you've seen the film.

IT MUST BE SAID that "The Grey" is an average-to-good
film with some strong themes of grief, death and faith that are well-executed.  A motley crew of oil riggers head back to Alaska.  The build-up chronicling the activity and tension among the men on board a plane on which they will fly to Alaska is highly uncomfortable and distressing to watch.  The realism and absurdity of some of what is said is palpable.  The plane crashes.  It's one heck of a crash -- one of the most frightening, intense and unbearable few moments of Joe Carnahan's rigorous and engaging thriller. 

"The Grey" opened yesterday in the U.S. and Canada.  I have seen "The Grey" twice: once three weeks ago at a press screening and once on the day of its initial release, January 27, 2012.

John Ottway (Liam Neeson) is on the plane to Alaska.  Then in the next moment John is lying in bed beside his peaceful, angelic-looking (and unnamed) wife played by Anne Openshaw.  John is wearing the same white down coat he wears in the film's opening scenes in which he declares that he, his life, "belongs here", at the "end of the world".  The shot of John in the bed next to his wife is viewed from a camera mounted above him, as if the camera -- Heaven itself, if you will -- is looking down at John. 

Heaven is beckoning John to come upstairs, as it were, and it seems that John is resisting.  With the help of some fine special effects, in the very next instant John is jolted from the safety and sanctity of the marital bed with his wife and back into the plane, as the next shot we see is John in a shaking plane that is about to crash.  "What is happening?", John asks, as he quickly straps himself in and the plane continues to shake violently. 

Throughout the film John is essentially in a tug-of-war between heaven and earth, and life and death, hence "The Grey" -- that flickering existence, that gray area, between life and death, between heaven and earth, that purgatory of continuing punishment and limbo.  More than a few times John's wife tells him in a roundabout way at least, that it's okay to let go -- that it is okay to die.

"Don't be afraid," she says on at least three different occasions during the film.

He may look alive, but in my view Mr. Neeson's John Ottway, ala Tim Robbins' Jacob Singer in Adrian Lyne's 1990 film "Jacob's Ladder", has been dead or breathing his last breaths all along.  Plenty of clues along the way suggest that John Ottway has expired or is very nearly there.  The lines of poetry of John's father come into play: "Into the last fight I'll ever know.  Live and die on this day."  This line symbolizes John's struggle not only of fighting the elements and the wolves but also resisting and fighting death.  It's the fight that humans and every other species has, the primal instinct to stay alive.  One of the men who is dying is fighting it, and John calmly tells him to acquiesce to his fate.

(What's noteworthy is that the movie poster for "The Grey" says "live or die on this day", while in the film itself John says, "live and die on this day."  Perhaps the filmmaker and Open Road Films didn't want the film to be too much of a giveaway, but it seems that it is anyway.)

The film's focus on death is not insignificant, and the manner of death is also a key factor.  The deaths in "The Grey" grow more senseless, and arguably more and more preventable.  A drowning.  A man who can't breathe.  While John shows a great deal of confidence in addressing how others die, especially in the early aftermath of the horrific plane crash, he grapples with his own survival.  If Heaven is supposed to be white and snowy and bright, then it wouldn't be too off base to argue that Heaven is all around John.  The snow of the Alaskan wild --really Alberta and various other parts of Canada, including British Columbia -- could be Heaven.  Ironically, throughout "The Grey" that same snowy wilderness represents a hell for John and the rest of the survivors who trek through the mountains.

I should say this now before going any further: I do not think that "The Grey" represents a dream.  The film is, rather, a look at those stages of memories that flicker so vividly and powerfully and in the blink of an eye when one is transitioning towards death.  Those memories could be dreamlike, and represented as such cinematically, but they, in my view, are not dreams in and of themselves.  John's memories and thoughts are flickering around in his mind. 

Liam Neeson as John Ottway and Ben Bray as Hernandez in Joe Carnahan's "The Grey". 
Open Road Films

Memories are memories, and they happen, whether out of sequence or not.  At one point in "The Grey" there's a split-second edit of a snarling or sharp-barking wolf -- and this is an insert edited into the film while John is seen on the plane.  The climactic showdown between John and the wolf (or wolves) has already taken place in my view, and this quick edit is a jarring memory for John.  Truncated for the audience, it's a memory John wants to forget.  It's a signal that he's not really alive.

Keep in mind that when the plane crash finishes, the first image shown immediately afterwards is of John by himself.  Ice is on his forehead and reddened face.  He never emerges from the wreckage of the plane initially.  We never see him emerge from the wreckage or anywhere near it.  He is alone, sitting in snow and ice.  Nothing else is visible.  It's only after that image when the camera sees him that there's a subsequent shot of John crawling toward the site of the impact of the crash.  This sequence of events is another sign that John is witnessing a "removal" or a distancing from the event, or that he is already dead and is having either an out-of-body experience, so to speak, or is just revisiting the memory of the crash.  Is it possible that John was flung a good distance from the crash?  Sure.  If so, why wasn't anyone else?  All other passengers were in the immediate area of the crash site.  Except John. 

Assuming for the sake of argument that John was flung or catapulted into the distance, wouldn't he be injured?  He looks relatively fresh, unscarred and unhurt for someone who has just been in an intensely kinetic plane crash.  It's true that some emerge relatively unscathed from plane crashes in reality and in the movies (see "Fearless" with Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez), but the fact John looks as clean as a whistle indicates once again that he is revisiting the crash in his mind as he is dying.  If you look at everyone else at the crash site, all of the men there have scars and cuts and other outward injuries.  Again, John does not have much of anything at all to show for the horrific ordeal he was just in.  And definitely no real visible scars initially.

Further in line with the idea that "The Grey" and its characters are not dreamlike or dreaming, one character, Burke (Nonso Anozie), experiences a hallucination.  "Not everyone gets them", another character explains.  This remark may be innocuous but is interesting, and in line with the position I'm taking regarding "The Grey" as something more symbolic of spiritual message or metaphor, it may explain something else beyond its mere utterance.  (I do not know what that something else is, however.) 

Earlier, another character, Hernandez (Ben Bray), when out in the freezing cold and jettisoned there immediately after the crash says that he doesn't know where the plane is, and that he was just in it.  He expresses disbelief that the plane isn't around, and it's only when John points the dismembered plane out to him that he believes it.

"The Grey" is also about the ambiguity of belief, the variance of belief and about men who struggle with the certitude of what they experience or what they can accomplish.  The men have doubts about all kinds of things especially faith.  John does too, as I will explain.  John's memories are vivid but he is either dead or very close to it, and again, has been in my view, for the entire film.

The last time we see John's wife in "The Grey" we see John, who is dressed similarly to how he looks when we last see John in the Alaska wild.  He looks peaceful, and we see an IV drip -- it's the first time we see the drip, presumably attached to John, in the entire film.  (By the way, the letter John writes is one that he probably writes not only to affirm the existence of his wife, but to fight his own death.  Perhaps Mr. Carnahan uses this letter as a motif, or a mantra or anthem for John, something to tangibly hold on to, to assert that he is indeed present in the moment, and alive.)

"The Grey" is written by Mr. Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers and based on Mr. Jeffers's short story "Ghost Walker".  I haven't read the short story, but its title alone is yet another suggestion that John, the ghost walker in "The Grey", is that -- a ghost.  As Eric Stoltz's drug-dealing, drug-supplying character would say in "Pulp Fiction", John is "as dead as . . . dead."

The last image of "The Grey" -- which comes after the entire end credits have run their course for about four minutes -- is of the back of what is John's head.  His head is reddened.  He is breathing but very slowly.  His head, the spiky black hair on it, is askance -- and is resting on what looks like the back of the black wolf he comes face to face with at the film's end -- "the end" just before the closing credits start. 

When exactly did John die?  He could have died anywhere, but I'd say that he died fighting that mean old wolf, and that that place in the woods of the wild is where John has been positioned all along in the film, slowly expiring and leaving Earth, while the memories of his wife, his life as a boy and his last fight -- the fight against the elements, the wolves and himself -- the fight against the inevitability of death -- have all been taking place over the better part of two hours.

"The Grey" chronicles death in a touching, mature way, and the aftermath of it.  Another man, Talget (Dermot Mulroney) experiences his daughter touching him with her hair.  We see this right after he dies after losing his eyeglasses while climbing.  Talget has spoken before about his daughter and how she touches him with her long hair.  The visual depiction of Talget's daughter is shown in a loving way as Talget takes his last breaths.  It's a polite, effective ceremony that represents Talget's passing.  The men in the film refer to the women they are with, or have been with, and all of these women obviously serve an important part of the story, even though many of them are not seen.  These women are guardian angels, and are keeping these men alive in many ways.

Dermot Mulroney (left) as Talget and Liam Neeson as John Ottway.  They are flanked by (on the left) Dallas Roberts (as Pete) and Nonso Anozie as Burke. 
Open Road Films 

Biblical significance and belief

Does John truly "believe"?  In a higher power?  He has his doubts, I think.  In the purgatory that he is in John is certainly being punished, perhaps for having such doubts.  John tries to save the lives of his fellow mates but he can't.  He later calls out to the skies in a mix of anger and despair, and says, "Damn it, show me something!  And I'll believe in you for the rest of my days!"  It's an agonizing moment. 

Early on in "The Grey" as John enters a building, which looks bigger than the bar it is supposed to be, we see a Holy Cross in white neon outline on the outside of the building.  There are a group of men with whom John will be getting on a plane in short order.  The men are in a mess hall of sorts in this bar, and there are about a dozen, if not more, of the men who will end up on the plane.  Is this a depiction of The Last Supper?  Granted, the atmosphere is quite rowdy, but for me this early scene is meant to be exactly what it feels like: a final meeting, a Last Supper. 

John is clearly the leader of this group of men.  Is John also leading disciples on a journey of faith, consciousness and higher reckoning? 

Various characters talk and debate about belief and specifically why they are in the brutal predicament that they are in.  Diaz (a very good Frank Grillo) dismisses the higher power talk when one other survivor talks about purpose and other things -- namely the plane crash itself and the survivors from it -- happening for a reason.  One man -- Peter -- or "Pete" (Dallas Roberts), as he later introduces himself as, says a prayer after one of the survivors dies while trekking through the oppressive, bitterly cold conditions. 

As posited earlier, each of the men has various levels of belief, whether in a higher power or in the obvious fact that their remaining time on the planet will be very short, but until near the film's climax, John does not.  We do however, see John wanting to prematurely end his life.  He goes outside the bar and places the end of a shotgun barrel into his mouth.  But that sound of a howling wolf won't let him die.  This is another example of John fighting and resisting death.

The last two men left standing in "The Grey" are Pete and John.  There's no accident that Pete, or rather Peter -- and John -- are Biblical names.  I personally do not subscribe to any religion, and again I have not read Mr. Jeffers' story but a casual viewer can see that the film is rooted firmly in the power of faith, survival and fate.  (John and Peter are key Biblical figures.)

The manner of Pete's death in "The Grey" very clearly evokes Biblical metaphor.  Chased by wolves, he and John run for their lives.  Suddenly Pete runs into the water to escape the wolves.  He floats down an icy cold river and his foot gets caught in a rock.  John has jumped in after Pete, and tries to rescue him but Pete is submerged by the rising waters and cannot grab the tree limb that is suspended inches from him.  John implores Pete to hold his breath, but in one of the most painful, pathetic, distressing and ultimately helpless moments in "The Grey", Pete dies.  He has refused to hold his breath as he is trapped underwater, and he doesn't struggle to help or save himself, nor does he make it easy for John to save him.  Pete appears to be literally surrendering to his own death, waving off John's rescue attempt.  John tries valiantly to save Pete but it is in vain, and achingly so.

In the Bible, specifically in Matthew 14, Peter -- the literal meaning of "Peter" is "rock" -- is designated as a man of little faith.  The character Pete dies at the hands of a rock in "The Grey", and it is clear that he has little faith in his survival.  Similarly, Matthew 14 also talks about Peter walking on water but then sinking when his faith and belief in Jesus weakens.  For a few brief seconds in "The Grey" Pete is indeed walking through, if not on, the frigid Alaska water, and when he has a chance to help himself and perhaps survive, he relents and cannot wiggle free of the rock that has trapped him.

Near the film's end, the displaying and inspection of the wallets, a beautiful, moving tribute to the men and their families, is one of the happiest and most triumphant parts of "The Grey", even though it is a sad moment.  John adds his wallet and the letter he has written to the rest of the wallets.  This sequence seems to represent John finally coming to terms with the fact that he will die, or that he will allow himself to do so.  For John, it is just a matter of how he will choose to go, and the poem in his father's study is the driving force.  Apparently -- if I remember correctly -- John's father is dead, and the poem may be an inspiring call from up above.  Who knows?

"The Grey" is a film I may see a third time.  In the time I've written this Mr. Carnahan's film has gone from average to good and now slightly beyond, and it's beginning to get a little better than that.

"The Grey" is rated R and is now playing in the U.S. and Canada.

Movie Review: "The Grey"

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