The Brilliant Existentialism of The Grey: An Analysis of an Overlooked Film
When The Grey (2011, directed by Joe Carnahan) was first released, it was marketed—very wrongly, might I add—as another Liam Neeson action vehicle, but this time it’s out in the wilderness and Neeson is fighting wolves. The general reaction was as to be expected, and I recall feeling indifferent toward the trailers.
However, I recently saw The Grey for the first time, and I found myself caught entirely off guard. To put my reaction in context, I read that Roger Ebert was so impressed with his screening of The Grey that he walked out of the next movie, feeling that it would be unfair to watch another movie and to criticize it in the wake of how The Grey had affected him.
There are many things that set The Grey apart from so many other wilderness survival films like it, most obvious being its philosophical agenda which shines through in some of the film’s most disarmingly poetic and emotional moments. As Neeson’s character, John Ottway, struggles to survive in an unforgiving wilderness with a small group of men, all the while a pack of desperate wolves stalks them, Ottway is haunted by memories of his wife, who left him, he says at the film’s beginning, and who will never come back. Ottway is suicidal at the film’s beginning—ready to kill himself. And it is exactly this aspect of The Grey that allows the film to embody its philosophies, and which makes it stand out from other films of its kind.
In these kinds of survival films, typically the central character—the tattered and tested survivor—is holding onto something. In “Castaway” it’s his fiancé, as well as the box he intends to deliver. In The Revenant, it’s the lust for revenge against the man who killed his son and left him for dead. Even when these characters find themselves in the face of what could be their death, they hold onto something, even if it’s just that one thing. It gives them meaning. It fills them with the strength needed to go on.
So then, what if you have nothing to hold onto? When you’ve lost everything, even your desire to go on living, what is it that persists about the human spirit? From where does the strength come from—the strength needed to go on? What if, like John Ottway, you are haunted by what you’ve lost, haunted by the past? At the beginning of The Grey, as I mention above, Ottway is ready to die. He even puts a rifle in his mouth and intends to pull the trigger before pulling out at the last moment—only to board the plane that will crash and leave him and a group of other men stranded and under threat.
It is here that the film finds its message when it embodies its philosophy of existentialism.
If existentialism, as a philosophy, can be distilled to a simplified description, it is this: the universe has no inherent meaning, so it follows that existence—life itself—has no inherent meaning either. It is purposeless. It just is. Nothing outside of you has a meaning, but you, by existing and exerting your will, give life meaning. Just as John Ottway screams to an empty sky demanding answers, demanding meaning, and receives no answer, we will never be given meaning from any outside source. We think we do, but really it’s us. We are responsible for our own lives, for the meaning and purpose we choose to give it if we are strong enough to unlearn what we’ve been told is meaning, and instead, make our own. Just as John Ottway says “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself,” after realizing there is no God that is going to answer him or give him what he’s looking for: It is, always was, always will be, up to him. Up to us.
Finally, it isn’t enough for a film to simply be philosophical to be good, but The Grey is a great film. It embodies its philosophies rather than preaches them. It’s writing is natural and captivating, and the film is visually beautiful.
In the film there is a poem, one that brings the story full circle, capturing what John Ottway discovers inside himself that gives him the strength to fight to live when before it seemed he had nothing left, and in closing this piece, I can think of no better ending note:
”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.”