The Grey is a 2011 film about a group of plane crash survivors that soon find themselves as stalking victims of a group of ravenous, aggressive wolves. On the surface, it looks nothing more than a typical Liam Neeson movie. On my revisited viewing of this film, I absolutely fell in love with this film.
The Key to understanding what this film has to say is to look at the dynamic between Liam Neeson’s character, John, and the alpha of the opposing wolf pack. When John found himself stranded in the middle of an arctic wasteland, he was forced to make a choice. This setting is perfect for the film’s message, as when you consider that in a life-threatening survival situation, to survive one must optimize every single choice they make to ensure their safety.
John’s character in this film lived through life as a jellyfish, just letting the waves carry him through life. When that plane crashed, it forced him to take initiative. In storytelling, the most boring character that could ever be written into a story is one who does not make decisions that move the story forward. So, The Grey takes this to the extreme and builds the entire message of the film off of rapid decision making as opposed to letting life (or the story in this case) make decisions for you.
Living in a Dream
One of the very first pieces of information the film gives us is John’s wife. Some time ago, his wife had passed, and he spends his days mourning during the daytime and living in a paradise in the dream world, where he can be in his wife’s arms.
There’s a poem that John’s dad had coined early in John’s childhood, and had framed on the family wall. The poem reads:
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.Liam Neeson as John Ottway – The Grey (2011)
This poem entails that one should do everything they possibly can to complete their goals, thus increasing chances of success by optimizing every opportunity they come across.
We don’t see much of John’s father, but we can assume that he was an important figure in his life. However, after John’s wife had passed away, all hope and enthusiasm that was left died with her. So now, his only reason to live is to wait until he falls asleep so he dull his pain, even for a short moment. John, like anybody would be, is heartbroken. He wishes for things he can’t have and asks the same questions over and over even when he knows he’s going to get the same answer.
We learn that since her death, John had landed himself a job working for an oil company. There’s a rampant wolf problem in this area that threatens the workers, so they hired John as a hunter to keep the company’s employees protected.
The opening shot of the film begins with John reading out loud a letter to his late wife. In it, he allows himself to be hypocritical for the sake of acceptance. He writes to her that he doesn’t know why he’s writing this, or what good it will do, especially considering that he knows she’s never going to return to him.
As we progress through this monologue, John explains that the people working for this company are the lowest of the low. They consist of ex-cons, fugitives, and drifters: according to John, as anyone unfit for mankind. Anyone who lands a job working for this company has made far too many mistakes in life to fit in with the rest of society.
There is some religious symbolism in this film that considers the credibility of God’s existence. These people have made far to many mistakes to have any hope of redemption, so why should we believe in the existence of God, when the evidence of his guidance is nowhere to be seen?
Well, shortly after John finishes this letter, he walks into a bar and takes a look around at the filth that inhabits the room around him. He then proceeds to take his last drink and walks outside to take his own life. He ends up stopping himself when he hears the combined howl of a pack of wolves in the mountains.
John chose to live on because it’s his purpose to protect his fellow workers from wolves. From my personal experiences, I only thought about suicide because I didn’t feel like I had a purpose in this world. From my perspective, I felt that the world wouldn’t lose anything if I left. Not necessarily that no one would miss me, but that I was a waste of oxygen. When John was reminded of his purpose, he had no choice but to live on, as all of those deaths attributed to wolf attacks would have been on him.
As John said, these people are the scum of human society. However, by defying fate and delaying their deaths, perhaps he can prolong the inevitable long enough to give them a second chance at redemption. However, as we come to find out, not everyone who works here is a lowlife. Sometimes it just happens that we have no options left. If John were to kill himself, his absence could be responsible for the death of someone who was just down on their luck. They would be at the mercy of fate.
When we feel that we don’t have many options left, when we feel we are beyond hope of saving, we may look to God for guidance. How do you think you would feel if the only person staffed to protect you from wild animals ended up killing himself, only to have you murdered by one of them? Sure, some people might not believe in God, and that’s fine. However, it would be selfish of you to take that faith away from them. Faith exists to give people hope, that as long as they keep breathing they’ll be okay.
People are counting on John to protect them. Even if John had physical proof that God didn’t exist, it would be much smarter just to let people be ignorant. Some people are in such a hole that God is the only thing left they have to hold onto. It would be incredibly self-centered for John to kill himself because so many people count on him. These people trust John with their lives, and John wants to end his own life because he can’t handle being away from his wife? No, that would be horribly unreasonable. So, John pulled his finger off the trigger and chose to live on for another day, in the name of life.
Later in the film, John will come to regret this decision, but that regret is short lasted. After the plane crash, the opportunity presents itself for the need for leadership, and John took initiative because he knew he was the best candidate for the job.
There comes a point in the film where John and some of his fellow workers have to board a plane flight for a business trip. John eventually falls asleep, and we see him in bed with his wife. John’s still wearing his coat as she’s cradling him. John’s only coping mechanism for reality is to escape from it in his dreams. So when the plane starts to crash, he’s ripped (literally) out of his wife’s arms and into reality.
Reality isn’t dull anymore. John expects reality to just leave him be until he enters the dream world, but that’s just not the case. This is real, and he has to make decisions that count. Being depressed about his dead wife isn’t going to help him in this life or death situation. It’s not that he doesn’t miss her or that he’s not hurt, it’s just in his best interest to keep living and make a decision, as he has been given an opportunity to turn his life around, to start treating his purpose with respect.
John accepted the harsh truth that no one isn’t going to find them. So, instead of wallowing in the pit life has thrown him in, he starts working for a solution. After all, no one else is equipped to lead, and every group needs a leader to succeed. John could care less about who these people are or why they ended up with such a dead-end job. All he cares about is that it’s in his best interest to take leadership status to ensure his survival. It just so happens that he forms friendships with these people later on.
The other members of the group just don’t have the leadership skills required to survive. He doesn’t spend too much time to mourn the people who have passed, not because he’s heartless, but that it would be a waste of precious time given the current situation.
There is one scene where he does give time to mourn that’s worth mentioning, however. After everyone settles into reality and recovers from their shock, one of the men is stricken with the horrible fate of his inevitable death as he slowly bleeds out. John decides to sit next to him and act as comfort for his dying soul. He does this because nobody else is equipped to handle this situation, so John steps up. See, whenever an opportunity presents itself that the world needs John’s skills, he takes initiative and doesn’t stop until he has no more energy. This is because he wasted so much precious time on his life worrying about things out of his control, waiting for life to allow him to see his wife again.
So now, he makes decisions that count, because there will be situations where the world will call for his aid. Many people may be conflicted as to what their purpose is, but John could care less what his purpose is. He only fills in the role he knows no one else can fill. He only wants to live life as full as he can because all he’s been doing is waiting to go to sleep so he can see his wife. He just wants to solve problems that he knows he has control over.
The wolves in this film may seem at first glance to be heartless killers, but they’re no different from John and his crew, especially the alpha. After the first death from one of these wolves, John explains that they may be trespassing on their territory, hence why these wolves begin hunting them.
Wolves aren’t territorial because they’re out for blood. As a wolf. if another carnivore enters your territory, it threatens your livelihood because you now have competition. If a group of carnivores enters your zone of control, that’s less food for you and your pack. As a leader, wolf or not, your job is to tend to the safety and survival of your pack. Wolves don’t attack humans when outside of their territory because there’s no purpose to, other than being prey, but that’s just the circle of life.
Diaz, the mouthy and rebellious member of John’s group, puts on quite the act to compensate for his fear. He puffs his chest out and talks a big game because that’s the only way he knows how to cope with his fear. So, when John points this out and puts him in his place, Diaz pulls out his knife and challenges his leadership. Of course, John beats him to the ground, not because he hates him, but to assert his dominance. John must maintain his spot as the leader because he’s the only one capable to lead the group. Diaz then apologizes and actually becomes a productive member of the group, but that’s beside the point.
The Alpha also makes a similar display of dominance when one of the wolves threatens his leadership. He then proceeds to kill the challenger, as a means to keep his status as the alpha. This decision to kill the challenger wasn’t personal, it was only practical. If the alpha decided to let it slide, his credibility to be a leader would collapse. The stability of the pack would crumble, and the pack would likely be killed off or starve to death.
In the final scene of the film, John finds himself to be the only survivor and accidentally stumbles into the wolves’ den. The alpha orders the wolves to stand down as he challenges John on his own.
John pulls his bearings together and gets his weapons ready instead of surrendering because there’s still a tiny chance of survival. Although the chances of his success are incredibly slim, there’s still a mathematical chance that he will survive. So, because he’s exhausted every other alternative option of survival, he readies for battle to survive. The only acceptable environment required to allow yourself to surrender is if you have exhausted every other option to complete your goals. In making any decision, you accept the consequences of what may come of it, if you’re tactical about it that is.
The alpha orders his pack to stand down because if he were to be “cowardly” and let his pack do his dirty work, he may have incubated an environment for one of the members of his pack to challenge his authority. For if he challenges the last survivor head-on, none of the other wolves would even dare challenge him. His pack knows he’s making the right decision because his extremely tactful nature in the past has warranted their trust to follow him.
Is this realistic wolf behavior? Absolutely not, but that’s not the point. Animals in films are often personified to be more relatable or frightening, and that’s not a bad thing. This is exactly why in the Lion King 2019 remake, all soul and emotion was lost when the decision was made to keep the animals as realistic as possible.
I absolutely fell in love with this film after my second viewing, and for good reason. I feel that this film’s version of the message, “living life to the fullest”, is the best adaptation that I have ever seen. The dynamic between John and the alpha is amazing, and I feel this is definitely a hidden gem that everyone should see. I love movies that use animals to incorporate their message, and this film did so with flying colors. If you take anything from this film, know that the worst decision you could ever make is not deciding at all.