The Grey (2012): Of Wolves and Men

There are films that I expect to glean meaning from but leave me disappointed. And then there are those that do not appear to provoke thought at the outset and yet manage to do so, sending me out the theatre with gratified resonance. The Grey is one such film.

A plane carrying a group of Arctic oil-rig workers crash in the deep snow of the Alaskan wilderness. There are seven survivors. The task of leading them out of the crash site to seek safety falls on the shoulders of John Ottway (Liam Neeson). His job at the oil rig is security, a marksman protecting the workers from wild wolves. At the beginning of the film Ottway is shown to be suicidal, overwhelmed with grief from the recent passing of his wife. It is ironic to see at the end, he is propelled by courage to fight for his life.

In the cold expanse of Alaska, Ottway leads the surviving men to trudge through deep snow, trying to get to safety away from wolf territory. The men are pitted against each other, stranded at nature’s mercy, defenceless against a pack of carnivorous grey wolves. It’s a survival story, a suspense thriller that has me on the edge of my seat. But it goes further than that.

Director Joe Carnahan does not just show a group of roughnecks toughing it out in extreme condition, facing death at every turn. He brings to the forefront some existential queries, as one by one the men fall prey to the wild. Stripped to bare existence, how is man different from wolves? For what do we live? For what do we die? Such moments of ruminations are enhanced by Masanobu Takayanagi’s meditative cinematography.

As they leave the crash site, Ottway tells the survivors to collect all the wallets from the victims so they can contact their family, if they ever get back home. From the photos in their wallets, we get a glimpse of lives lived, and know that they have loved ones waiting. Following their treacherous path, we might sense that their outward skepticism masks a painful and silent hope for a transcending force, One who can save them from their fateful predicament.

The men don’t bond right away. The unruly, the scared acting tough. But extreme circumstances change them quickly. Sitting around a fire, they learn to cherish the memories they’ve had in their life, and begin to value each other. We know their fears. We listen to their stories. In one moving moment, Ottway shares a poem he remembers his Irish grandfather had written. Little does he know those words would become the fuel that catapults him to fight for his life at the end.

There’s something about Liam Neeson that stands out in a film. He embodies a kind of dignified charisma. But here in The Grey, it’s not just charisma, it is like poignant reality. The look on his face speaks volumes. In the film, he conjures up in his mind the wife he has loved and lost lying beside him. “Be brave,” he can hear her loving whisper. In real life, he just may be aching for the same, as his wife Natasha Richardson died after an accident in the snow three years ago.

Animal advocacy groups have voiced out their opposition to the portrayal of the Grey Wolves in the movie. Wolves are social animals, gentle and non-aggressive, they argue. The film gives them a bad rap. My thought is this: If a young human can go into his school and massacre his peers, and if humans can murder members of their own clans, why is it hard to imagine carnivorous wild wolves would prey and attack intruders in their territory? Showing that animals do act on their instinct is no disrespect.

After all, this is not a scientific study of wolf behavior. The film is less about wolves than men. The questions it poses cannot be answered by Science. And if you have to be accurate about all the facts, it’s not in Alaska where they shot the film, but here in Arti’s territory of Western Canada, Alberta and British Columbia to be exact. But what does it matter?

I will not give away spoiler about the ending, for it struck me most strongly and left me with deep resonance as I walked out of the theatre. It is poignant and powerful, although I did hear a gasp of ‘what?’ from someone in the dark theatre. If you go to see this movie, do sit through the credits, and stay there until the very end of the roll, you’ll see something more.

Yes, there is suspense and some action. But what’s more important is that there are quiet moments for ruminations. If you are comfortable with that, you would likely care to follow these men in their precarious strive for survival.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


Natasha Richardson: Nell and The White Countess


I’m shocked and saddened to learn of Natasha Richardson’s sudden passing.  I followed the news all day yesterday.  She had a minor fall on a beginners ski slope at the Quebec resort Mont Tremblant not far from Montreal while vacationing with her sons Michael and Daniel.  It turned out that she had sustained a serious head injury which was not noticeable at first.  But an hour later she started to have headaches and rapidly deteriorated.  She was rushed to Montreal’s Sacré-Coeur hospital and later transported to NYC Lenox Hill Hospital.  Her husband Liam Neeson (Taken, 2008, Schindler’s List, 1993) flew to Montreal to be with her from his Toronto set of Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, and had not left her side.

Natasha Richardson was a shining actor on the London stage and on Broadway, winning a Tony Award in 1998 for her lead role as Sally Bowles in the revival of the musical ‘Cabaret’, directed by Sam Mendes (Revolutionary Road, 2008 ).  Acting was in her genes as she was privileged to be born into a family of astounding theatre talents, her grandfather being Sir Michael Redgrave, one of England’s finest tragedians according to The New York Times, her mother Vanessa Redgrave (Oscar Best Actress, Julia, 1977; Howards End, 1992Atonement, 2007), her father the director/producer Tony Richardson, her sister Joely Richardson (Nip/Tuck).  Natasha Richardson died March 18, 2009.  She was only 45.

The highly acclaimed actress had left an impressive body of work from Shakespeare to the silver screen.  Her long filmography spans from comedies like The Parent Trap (1998) to the futuristic fable by Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale (1990).  One of her earlier film is A Month in the Country (1987) with Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh.  But these two are most memorable to me:  Nell (1994) and The White Countess (2005).

NELL (1994)

nell1Natasha Richardson met Liam Neeson on the set, and married him that year.   Jodie Foster is Nell, who grows up in the wild forest of N. Carolina, far away from human civilization.  She knows no language, well, none that other human can understand.  The only two people she has seen are her mother and her twin sister, whom she communicates with a language of their own.  After they die, Nell is left alone to deal with her loss and survival, until one day, she is discovered by Dr. Jerome Lovell (Liam Neeson) and Dr. Paula Olson (Natasha Richardson).  From an initial academic interest, Lovell has grown to appreciate Nell as a person, and wants to bring her back to human society.  While both doctors have good intentions, others do not.  Herein lie the conflicts in the plot, the wild child versus the modern world, the experimental object versus the human being.  All three main characters put forth an impressive performance.  If you can still get hold of the DVD, now may be the poignant time to reminisce.


the-white-countessA lesser known film by Natasha Richardson, The White Countess (2005)  is a Merchant Ivory production (Merchant’s last film), its screenplay by the talented writer Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day).  The story takes place in the exotic setting of Shanghai, China, shortly before WWII.  Slightly resembling Casablanca (1942), the movie excels in its mood and atmosphere.  Ralph Fiennes is Todd Jackson, a blind, former American diplomat who meets a Russian refugee Sofia (Natasha Richardson) in a night club.  Sofia belongs to a family of nobility, a White Russian countess herself, but now has to work in the lowliest line to support her family.  The Japanese invasion sets the stage for suspense, and the plot thickens.  Vanessa Redgrave plays Sofia’s aunt, and has delivered some moving moments performing with her daughter.  Natasha’s aunt Lynn Redgrave is also in the movie.  Now those scenes are ever more memorable.  The behind-the-scenes interviews with the three of them, together with Ralph Fiennes, commentary with Natasha Richardson and director James Ivory in the Special Features are just priceless now.  I purchased the DVD a while back, and have seen it several times.  I know I’ll treasure it even more now.


Photo Sources:

Natasha Richardson:, Nell:, The White Countess: