The Grey: Liam Neeson vs. Wolves and God (Part 2)

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Ottway’s own concern is more practical: He collects the wallets of the victims, hoping to bring them to civilization for their families. In the absence of religious ritual, the wallets become almost a sort of sacred trust; with their pictures of loved ones and the memories they represent, they are all that is left of the victims’ identities.

The circumstances are dire. Perhaps too dire. The wolves are not only extraordinarily large and powerful and ferocious, but uncannily cunning as well. In one sequence the remaining humans go to astonishing lengths to move on from the wolves’ territory—but as soon as one of them missteps, the wolves are right there to pick him off.

For the record, a review of the film at the International Wolf Center blog calls The Grey a “monster movie,” adding that it’s about “as accurate a portrayal of wolf behavior as King Kong was about gorillas.”

In real life, wolves are almost always timid around humans. Wolf attacks on humans are rare, and almost always on children or, more rarely, women. Wolves that do attack humans are nearly always habituated to humans in proximity to human dwellings or else rabid.

The idea of a wolf pack deep in the wild harrying a group of several able-bodied men and picking them off one by one is unrealistic, though the movie’s biggest gaffe is the conceit of “the den” as a sort of established home base for the entire pack, littered with the carcasses of past kills. In reality, a den is a temporary home for birthing mothers in the spring. There are also serious questions, as I’ve noted before, about the whole “alpha/omega” social theory of wolves.

Can we accept those conceits for the sake of the movie? After all, King Kong is generally considered a pretty good flick. Well, yes and no. King Kong is overtly escapist fantasy, while The Grey seeks to be a grimly realistic survival movie. I appreciate that unlike last winter’s nihilistic tale of attrition, the execrable Sanctum, The Grey doesn’t cheapen life and death, and shows some interest in the big questions. But stacking the deck too improbably against the survivors is as damaging to suspension of disbelief as benevolent coincidences ushering a happy ending.

The film’s last word belongs to Ottway’s father, who wrote a scrap of fatalistic, defiant verse that provides Ottway with the closest thing to a credo he has:

Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know
To live and die on this day…
Live and die on this day…

It’s a limited perspective for a movie that shows some interest in the bigger picture.

It is possible to discern a ray of grace in the darkness that surrounds Ottway. Like the real world, the world of The Grey doesn’t oblige us either to acknowledge God or to deny Him. If we choose, we can hear His voice speaking a word of reassurance. If we don’t, the movie doesn’t press the point. In the end, though, it’s on this world that The Grey has its eyes.

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