Saturday, January 28, 2012

No God Among the Wolves -- Reflections on 'The Grey' (2012)

Liam Neeson: Existentialist Superhero!
Years ago, I used to be a Christian. I came into the faith right before my second year of college (typically the time in life when most people walk away from theirs), and I remained a Christian for 13 years. I do not regret my time as a believer, nor do I consider it a waste of my life. While I eventually stepped away from the faith, I made a lot of friends, learned a lot about the world, and ultimately learned a lot about myself. I needed to be a Christian for those years in order to be the man I am today, for better or worse.

But step away I did. I walked away for many reasons, but mainly because I could no longer trust talking to an invisible man whose divine powers were supposed to be assisting me. One of the defining characteristics of most Christians is the ability to look at a setback, or a failure, as part of “God’s plan.” If you get cancer, or a child dies unexpectedly, or you lose your job and become homeless, it is all because of God’s design for your life. If you suffer, it is because he loves you, or – if you go to the wrong churches – because you don’t have enough faith. Despite the fact that life is often full of misery, frustration, and challenge, it is taught that God has the power to solve all of your problems and make the world a better place. Yet, it seems he seldom uses this power to benefit anyone specifically (except celebrities, athletes, musicians, and Republicans).

The Grey is a movie about the absence of God. It is an existentialist film in which all that matters is survival. We begin with a man named Ottway (Liam Neeson in a career-defining performance) who is on the brink of suicide the eve before he is set to hop on a plane taking him and a group of oil men to Alaska to drill oil. The plane crashes, Ottway and a few others survive, and quickly discover that they are hopelessly alone in the snowy Alaskan wilderness. Not completely alone, though; there are the wolves. Hungry, angry wolves are on the prowl, and the men find themselves facing a cunning and violent threat. The men mostly embrace Ottway as their de facto leader, and he tries to steer them in the right way to survive. Suddenly, in surviving, Ottway decides that life – no matter how awful – is worth clinging on to.

The movie’s trailers make it seem like a non-stop battle between men and wolves, and while the action in that regard is well shot and edited, the film spends more time developing the relationships between these men. Each has a history, a belief system, a reason to live, and their experiences together test their fortitude and will. Of course, several die, and it is a credit to director Joe Carnahan that he makes each death matter. This is not a horror film; these deaths stay with you, and are not fun.

While the men talk about God, and reflect on his plans, it becomes evident that there is no God to be found in the wilderness. Ottway realizes that if he wants something done, he will just have to do it himself. There will be no invisible hand, no deus ex machina to save the day and rescue him and his fellow survivors. The world is a cold and desolate place, harsh and violent, and there are wolves everywhere, hiding and ready to spring at a moment’s notice; The Grey captures this idea in the wintry landscapes, the glowing blue eyes of the wolves, and the worn, snow-speckled faces of our heroes.

Neeson’s performance is a stand-out, and had this film been distributed just a few weeks earlier, I have no doubt he would be on the Oscar ballot this year. His Ottway is tormented, yet finds strength in fear. No other actor could handle this role.

As I watched the film, I was constantly reminded of my own life, my own journey into dark territories, and my final resolve to walk away from faith. Like Ottway, I came to the realization that I had to do this by myself since no one was coming for me. He is truly an existentialist hero; a man who lives to fight and die on his own terms.

This is a powerful, gut-wrenching film. Like its villains – if you can really call them that – The Grey goes for the throat.