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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

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