By Bobby Neal Winters
Mr. Virgil Gantt taught us in high school literature that there were three kinds of conflict: Man versus Man; Man versus Nature; and Man Versus Himself. One might wonder whether they are all three aspects of the third or if there is a fourth all-encompassing Man Versus God. Let’s leave that question, at least for now.
The Grey, a movie starring Liam Neeson, portrays all of these conflicts. While Man does encompass male and female, in The Grey we might well forget that. In my own personal taxonomy, it is what I classify as a Man’s movie.
That part of it begins with the cast. Though women are important to the film, there are only two women in the cast who appear other than through memory or anecdote. One is a bartender and the other is a stewardess. The women who are otherwise present are wives, lovers, and daughters. Their presence is as important to the story as that of the men, but they are present through a man’s perception of them. They tell as much about the man as they do about themselves.
Liam Neeson plays John Ralph Ottaway whose job is hunting wolves for an oil company in a remote part of Alaska. He is on the way out of the wilderness with a plane load of other oilfield men when the plane crashes in the mountains. The group of survivors define axes that illustrate the masculine space: smart/stupid; aggressive/meek; spiritual/godless; wise/fool.
That which follows contains spoilers, so proceed at your own risk.
The could’ve written a movie wherein everyone immediately fell in behind Neeson’s character and after adventures he leads them to safety. That has been done many times and isn’t bad, but this is not that film. Most do follow his lead. The ones who don’t die quickly. Those who do die less quickly. After a certain point, one realizes that everyone in this movie is going to die. The question is how?
Just exactly like life.
In looking at the group dynamics of the survivors, we are asked to notice how much like wolves they are. They group together to survive; they fight each other for leadership; they establish a hierarchy. The Romans said, “Homo homini lupus.” Man is the wolf of man. (They might not have meant it in this sense, but I love the phrase so much, that I am going to keep using it until I use it correctly.)
All of the men carry around the women in their lives with them. The better the man, the higher he esteems his woman, or is that vice versa?
Neeson’s character is continually flashing back to his wife who we learn through his internal monolog has left him. We are confused because his memories contain no bitterness. She is remembered almost as an angel of light and, much like an angel, continually telling him not to be afraid. It is only in the very last moments of the movie when we see the IV drip and the hospital bet that we understand.
Each of the men meet death. Neeson’s character the last.
Before his end, he calls to God and curses Him, berating him for a sign, for some help. This being the movie it is, there is neither. Neeson gets up then saying, “I’ll just have to do it myself.”
And at that, Neeson meets death remembering a poem taught him by his father, “Once more into the fray / once more into the fray / to live and die on this day / to live and die on this day” and using the skills he’d learned as a man.
Ultimately while this is a man’s movie about men and being a man, it is also about the struggle of life. There is only one way out. How do you face it?