The Grey, starring Liam Neeson, came out in between Taken and Taken 2, so it gives a false impression that it is another tough guy movie. Instead of fighting criminals, Neeson is going to beat up grey wolves in Alaska because his plane crashed. To my surprise, this movie is a piece of literature. Perhaps a good starting point in discussing this film is to decide what genre it falls under. Is it a thriller? Drama? Suspense? No, I would call it a fable. By definition, a fable is a short story, usually with animal characters, conveying a moral. Yes, I think this fits They Greywell. As for the moral, the subject is on existentialism.
To refresh our memory on what existentialism is, I would like to recall The Myth of Sisyphus interpreted by Albert Camus. In this Greek mythology, Sisyphus was punished by Zeus to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. Before he could reach the top, this boulder would roll back down, forcing him to start again. The eternal repetitive cycle became an endless punishment. Camus uses this story to explain the absurdity of life that life is as meaningless as Sisyphus’ effort in trying to roll the boulder up to the top. And, I would like to argue that this is at the core of what The Grey is attempting to convey.
The plot of the film is simple. John Ottway (played by Liam Neeson) is hired by an oil company to protect the oil riggers from the wolves. Their plane crashed on the way back and the seven survivors had to fight their way to stay alive from being killed by grey wolves. The director inserts a philosophical discussion in the middle of the story by telling us that Ottway attempted suicide just one day before the crash. He survived because he was distracted by the distant howling of a wolf. However, in less than twenty-four hours, he was fighting with every last ounce of energy inside him for his life. This is where the absurdity came in. In the beginning of the movie, Ottway speaking as the narrator, says he fits well with this group of people whom he called ex-con, fugitives, drifters, and “assholes” – men unfit for mankind. The audience is also hinted that he has lost his wife, whom he loved very dearly. When try to connect the dots, we are presented with a character who has lost his luster for life after losing his beloved wife. As a consequence, he has descended to a level that he perceived as scoundrels not fit for living. This notion is affirmed towards the end of the story when another character Diaz gives up and sits down and waits for the end to come. He says “I have nothing to live for. I’ll be just going back to the drill.” The pessimism is shared by Ottway just a day ago when he put a gun barrel in his own mouth.
In the midst of this man-against-nature survival battle, they have a brief theological discussion. A God-fearing man in the group asks this question: Do you reckon this is ordained? In essence, he is seeking for the interpretation of his experience. Is God doing this? Does he want us to learn something? Ottway’s conclusion is “no”. He either does not believe in God or he believes God is not there with them. But here’s a twist to my thoughts. The word “ordained” reminded me of the story of Jonah. In this short prophetic book, the Hebrew word for “ordained” appears several times in the form of “God provided”. First of all, God ordained the whale(1:17). He then ordained the vine to shade Jonah (4:6). He also ordained the worm to chew up the vine (4:7). Lastly, he ordained the scorching east wind (4:8). It is almost ironic that the one who should be ordained (Jonah) was the sore thumb that’s standing out as not ordained (to go to Tarshish). As the sailors were facing the threat of dying at sea, they asked what brought them this dire fate, and the answer was the prophet Jonah. In a similar sense, I saw Ottway as the reason why these men were drawn to their state. Neeson’s character has been on ‘exile’ since he lost his wife. Life becomes meaningless and God is completely dismissed. This man on exile finally crosses path with God at the end of the story when he loses his final companion and exhausts every resource and wit he has. He shouts at heaven, “Do something! Do something! I need you now, not later. Prove yourself and I will believe you till I die.” Unlike Jonah, the only response for Ottway is silence. The absurdity of life remains – therefore existentialism.
The Christian response to the existentialist is this: God never left. He was with you when you were rolling that boulder up the hill. Your suffering is not meaningless because Christ suffers with you. Your wound is healed because of His suffering. Your despair becomes hope because of His resurrection. When Ottway yelled “Do something”, God already did. He gave him the wolves. Because of the wolves, he fought for his life with every ounce of energy instead of destroying it. He became the leader. He became the comforter of the group. Now, if God had taken so many lives to teach Ottway a life lesson, then isn’t God immoral? Perhaps. But not if this is only a fable. And, that’s how we should understand it.