Liam Neeson, killer wolves and the curious preachiness of The Grey

Josh Larsen

Monica 'N Stanley Groothof
January 31, 2012

Thanks for reviewing this film. It was filmed near where we live in northern BC, but other than that we didn't know anything about it until now.

David Fowlie
January 31, 2012


In your review of “The Grey”, you mentioned that Carnahan and his screenwriters don’t answer any questions about faith. You’ve also written about how you didn’t think that the existential aspects of the film weren’t handled really well; that the film is preachy about a lack of faith.

While I’m not sure how you came to that conclusion, I didn’t think any of those elements were handled in an unnatural or heavy-handed way.

Since the characterization was believable and the context of the subject matter seemed to fit, I had no problem with how such topics were handled. In this case, right from the start, the wolves and the much-touted action takes a back seat to the human drama apparent on screen. Liam Neeson’s character, John Ottway is a self condemned soul, a strong albeit broken man that feels he belongs in what he claims is “a godforsaken place” with the rest of the outcasts and lowlifes that surround him.

Those are the men that eventually come to rely on Ottway for survival and become his sole human connection out in the brutal wild. We’re not expecting deep philosophical banter from such characters, but campfire discussions about what really matters in life and whether or not faith makes a difference is inevitable, and actually quite refreshing, considering how this movie is being marketed as another Neeson action flick. During these conversations, there are a couple men who have a flame of faith, but that is quickly snuffed out by Ottway (and the volatile Diaz, effectively played by Frank Grillo), who only believes in the moment he is in or what he sees – a pretty common point of view and one that is fitting considering what we’ve been shown about his character. Of course, there’s no real time to discuss these topics in an in-depth manner, since the movie has to keep these guys moving.

As their numbers dwindle due to their relentless pursuers, whatever they do believe in is tested. Their hope and faith (in themselves or God) fades, as their minds become just as worn down as their battered bodies. In the end, it seems fitting for Ottway to look up to the sky and curse out and challenge a God he doesn’t believe in. It’s a scene that is somewhat clichéd, but it is a fitting climax based on what we’ve seen the character go through and what we know about him. It felt real and truthful.

If “The Grey” came up with any tangible answers to questions of faith or the lack thereof, I fear it would come across as trite and unfitting to the bleak tone already established. It’s better for such a movie to propose such questions than come up with answers, leaving viewers with their own thoughts and observances on those issues.

What was most poignant to me was seeing Neeson in the snow, on his knees, going through the wallets of each deceased man. As he flipped through photos of the men with their loved ones (wives or children), he/we saw a different side of them and realized that they were valued by someone. That there was more to them then what they were known for. Watching him hold tightly to Diaz’s wallet after seeing that it only had an ID in it, was even more impacting. Such a scene was just as refreshing to me as the campfire discussions, providing surprisingly deep and humane moments for a movie that turned out to be “man vs. wolf” movie.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
January 31, 2012

I think we're actually in agreement here David, at least in that obviousness would only weaken the movie (I certainly wouldn't want a clear explication of Neeson's state of faith). I guess I found the scenes involving prayer and discussion of faith to be obvious in that way, while they worked in a subtle way for you. In any case, I think we both feel The Grey was much more thoughtful than expected, and the better for it.

Steven Koster
January 31, 2012

Spoilers may follow.

I found "The Grey" so thematically muddled, it's hard to sharpen an opinion about it. Parts are breathtaking (beautiful landscapes, palpable fear), some is shoddy (poorly written dialogue, mixed metaphors, almost silly plot devices).

In all, it's a Psalm of lament, shouted by a man whom the 'wolves' of loss have been stalking a long time. But if there's a refrain of hope included in the end, it's hard to hear.

But the film-makers point of view is maddeningly muddled. The ending suggests life is loss, and you die in the end. So is there a point to life? Is it worth fighting to survive loss? Dying characters reunite with loved ones in a glimpse of heaven, but a silent God sends only more death. There's a road, but it leads nowhere. Humans seem worth saving, but we're just animals like the wolves are. The wolves could represent real evil, or they could be any scary thing in the night (aliens, terrorists, poltergeists), or maybe they're just scared and hungry like us. All of these seem true at some point in the film.

It feels like a horror movie with a bunch of philosophy tropes thrown in. Particularly lame was the campfire scene which sounded like they were each reading a chapter from "Religious Worldviews for Dummies." It felt like someone had added this dialogue at the last minute to beef up 'character building' or at least a lull in the pacing. Just bad storytelling.

February 9, 2012


I saw The Grey, I've read your review three times, and I interpret the wolves very differently than you.

Other readers: This will be chocked full of spoilers, so if you're planning on seeing the movie, stop now.

The wolf pack and the humans are parallels. These men are violent and competitive. When the wolves' alpha and omega males duke it out, the men do EXACTLY the same thing in their ersatz pack.

At the beginning of the film, Ottway feels more attuned to the wolves than the humans. He is estranged from his species, yet he retains a greater connection with his prey than other people. The wolves' howling deterring his suicide seems to remind him that it is possible to live alone (lone wolf images abound) without connection.

He feels empty inside and has no feeling for the people around him.

When the first man dies after the crash, he comforts him (with great similarity to his earlier reassurances to the dying wolf). At this moment, Ottway establishes himself as leader of the surviving men.

As the desperate men trek toward, they hope, civilization, they peel back the shells of that protect them from society. Some of the men, notably Hendrick (the Christian father), have lived with sincerity and don't change much in these scenes while the ones with the toughest exteriors begin to connect.

Though members of the human group drop like flies, each death is keenly felt in a manner that is surprising for movies of these genres (action, survival, horror).

As Ottway is an atheist at the beginning of the film, I do not see how the wolves can be a metaphor for doubt stalking him. He only struggles with doubt (of his atheism) when Hendrick drowns. This is what you define as his Job moment. It reminds me of an atheist explaining about losing a devout friend made him question his atheism and long for a heaven as his friend deserved one.

At the end (see, I promised spoilers) he realizes he has guided the group toward certain death rather than salvation when he recognizes his arrival the wolves' den. The wolves were not stalking the men, they were trying to eradicate the intruders from their home.

In the film's final moments, Ottway, the human alpha, squares off with the pack's alpha in a contest that will assuredly end in his death. He has to choose between surrender (fatal results) and fighting (fatal results). He champions his lost friends (which he's only gained in the last few hours) and works to inflict as much damage as he can despite the fact it will not save him.

"Do not go gentle into that good night."

He has decided to live even as he is dying (from hypothermia even if the wolves should inexplicably wander off).

He certainly doesn't undergo religious conversion (an event I think many viewers long for), yet the film favorably portrays overtly religious Hendrick as a humanizing force and the second strongest man. Both men survive longer on the merits of their strong beliefs.

This seems to a be a question of how we spend our lives. Conviction, connection, and courage are strongly encouraged.

"The Grey" is a tragedy in the literary sense. The protagonist gains insight only after the worse possible situation is enacted. It has more commonality with Shakespearean and ancient Greek tragedies than modern action films.

I found it engaging and thought-provoking.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
February 10, 2012

I like this interpretation Adrienne. I didn't read it this way, but I can see how it makes sense. Certainly that scene of the wolves' howling and interrupting Ottway at the beginning is key. My favorite moment.

Cara Miller
March 1, 2012

Thanks for reviewing this movie, it helped me work through my own ideas about what was going on, and what i could take away from it.

Hey, did you know that Donald Miller's book Blue Like Jazz has been made into a film?! The discussion of faith and religion that was thoughtfully and creatively written out in the book is now coming to the big screen! i hope you get the chance to see this movie. check it out at bluelikejazzthemovie.com and see if the tour is coming to your city! The movie will be in theaters April 13th.

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