Dermot Mulrony (glasses) and Liam Neeson (to his right) are two of the oil-riggers trying to survive Alaskan wilderness and a pack of wolves after a plane crash in The Grey. Courtesy Rotten Tomatoes staff
Against tough odds, Joe Carnahan’s film The Grey infiltrates the titular haze of its frigid, blizzard-ridden environment to penetrate the human heart. The title also alludes to the grey wolf, a beautiful creature that is also the world’s most notorious predator canine, justifiably or not.
I don’t normally search out number-one box office hits, especially violent ones, but this one impressed me deeply, so my reference to the director is also a nod to Andrew Sarris, the recently deceased critic whose auteur theory helped moviegoers understand films as the creation of a director-as-artist. And at a time when the current top-grossing movie is about a foul-mouthed teddy bear, we might gain better bearings with a film exquisitely photographed and superbly acted under often-ruthless conditions in British Columbia.
Perhaps I needed a wintry film to psychically cool me amid this sultry summer. Man, this did the trick. I felt sympathetic frostbite, even in our 90-ish° weather. But I was also very curious about how the film would depict wolves — its nominal heavies. It turns out more rabid wolf lovers than me* object to this movie. There’s an organized protest against the film, including a Boycott-The Grey Facebook page.
The page cites the seemingly compelling statistic that only one human has been killed by a wolf since 1888. The page goes on to say that the film’s “completely fictional” depiction of wolf behavior encourages “ignorant people to think it’s a good thing to kill all the wild wolves” because of the depiction here of wolves whose behavior is largely computer-generated.
So what happens in the movie? Well, Liam Neeson as John Ottway and a plane full of fellow oil riggers crash into the Alaskan wilderness. As Ottway — who knows wolves as a poacher — explains, they have accidentally ended up very close to the wolves’ den. These wolves will aggressively, and it turns out relentlessly, defend their den.
“We are interlopers,” Ottway says.
The film does not encourage the killing of wolves that I can see. “I don’t think the film will make people fear wolves, but I’d like to make them respect wolves and, by extension, nature itself more,” writer/director Carnahan told the Greenspace blog at the Los Angeles Times. “I’d like the movie to remind people that we’re just visitors here.”
I question his former point, but agree with the latter two. Neeson the poacher does shoot one wolf in the beginning, but we see him walking up to the creature, crouching and placing a tender hand on it as it dies. He is clearly conflicted about his poaching and is actually suicidal — his wife has left him and his self-esteem is now stuck on the bottom of his boots.
Yet he knows how dangerous a wolf can be — when protecting its territory. Wolves usually give up chases after 1–2 km (0.62–1.3 mi), though one wolf was recorded to chase a deer for 21 km (13 mi). But their territorial protection is very real. So the chase by the wolves in the film is plausible.
Yet, Daniel MacNulty, a wildlife-ecology professor at Utah State University asserts in a National Geographic interview that Ottway’s assertion that wolves will attack anything that comes near their den, and “are the only animal that will seek revenge.” is “nonsense.”
Whales clearly have seeked revenge against whalers. These men are facing a serious wolf pack, and MacNulty’s “nonsense” comment unintentionally evokes Melville’s comment on another animal well capable of killing men: “I tell you, the sperm whale will stand no nonsense.”
So do wolves attack humans or not?
Valerius Geist, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science, The University of Calgary, in a recent paper wrote: “Wolves attack people. These initial attacks are clumsy, as the wolves have not yet learned how to take down efficiently the new prey…Persons attacked can often escape… But mature, courageous man may beat off or strangulate an attacking wolf. However, against a wolf pack there is no defense and even two able and armed men may be killed. Wolves as pack hunters are so capable a predator that they may take down black bears, even grizzly bears.”
Today, “territorial threats and starvation are likely the two chief reasons for wolf attacks,” but some researchers posit that wild wolves can, in fact, begin to explore humans as prey under certain other conditions, Geist writes.
And despite the claims of Facebook’s The Grey-boycott page, Geist writes of 21 reported fatal wolf attacks since 2000. Most have been in rural Russia, but recent attacks also include one wolf-related death in Saskatchewan, Canada, and one in Alaska — the 2010 mauling death of teacher Candice Berner, who was out jogging near Chignik Lake, Alaska. Thousands of Europeans were killed by wolves between the 1500s and 1800s, when rabies was far more prevalent.
Historically, North American settlers’ guns have made wolves wary of humans.
The men in this film are without any guns, Ottway’s rifle having been ruined in the crash (He fails to think of bringing it anyway as a visual threat or a club, a small plot flaw). Meanwhile, the core territory of a grey wolf pack is on average 14 square miles, so you begin to sense the dilemma of these men. Do you stick by the downed airplane with its partial shelter and likely radar location of search parties, or do you flee from the wolf territory?
[What ensued was the best wilderness survival film I’ve seen in many years. The Grey cuts to the human experience on the icy edge of existence with brutal force, and stunning and telling detail. Note one scene’s blood icicles from above – the plane crashed and capsized… It gradually and persistently won me over. And the wolf attacks scenes, though shocking in their suddenness, did not seem gratuitously graphic, given how raw and immediate such attacks often apparently are. It’s a well-earned but, I think, an honest R-rated film.
And the portrayal of wolves has complexity. In Earth Island Journal, James William Gibson comments that the opening scenes “portray the oil company town as a modern hell, the men as brawling drunks and assorted losers (‘men unfit for mankind’ in Ottway’s voice over narration) and the attacking wolves as possibly morally superior…On another occasion, one of the survivors kills a wolf and the group roasts and eats it. In a fit, he then cuts the wolf’s head off and throws it into the woods, declaring, ‘You’re not the animals. We’re the animals.’ No one openly disputes him.”
That character is John Diaz, a bristly ex-con played by Frank Grillo, who resists Neeson’s characteristically gruff, self-righteous bossiness. It’s almost a satirical commentary on Neeson’s typical alpha-male style, which is tempered here by the actor’s distinct intelligence and sensitivity.
At one point, Ottway recalls a poem written by Irish father: “Once more into the fray. / Into the last good fight I’ll ever see./ Live or die on this day./Live or die on this day.”
This is ultimately a story of men enduring hardship together and becoming more human for it, especially as they struggle to survive their fear, and often horribly forbidding weather, not to mention the wolves.
The director says he tried to convey the wolves not as monsters but “as a fact of, and therefore a force of, nature.” They attack with uncannily swiftness and in one scene appear as a group of electric eyes hovering in the darkness.
Ottway speaks of human ego and hubris and says, “Nature will always impose its nature on us.”
And consider it from the wolves’ point of view. I huge flying metal monster crashes and explodes near their den – a “territorial threat.” About seven humans emerge from it, some injured and bleeding. The wolves smell this, and come after the men, in instinctively aggressive self-defense.
I buy this, even though I believe also that wolf attacks are very rare. So the real problem is not a film like this, if you watch it all the way through and acknowledge its philosophical aspects and its human story. The problem is reactionary politicians trying to undermine a long-sought re-population of wolves. For the first time ever, Congress may legislatively remove protections for an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, reports the Center for Biological Diversity. Several bills have been introduced removing protections for wolves.
Wolves have seen tremendous recovery in the northern Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes. But the job of recovery is not yet complete. With removal of protections, Wyoming would allow wolves to be shot on sight across most of the state and both Montana and Idaho would dramatically reduce wolf numbers.
This threat brings me back to another aspect of The Grey, the wolf howls. Their cries are uncannily powerful, strangely musical and poignant. And they are an acoustic force of nature. Wolf howls can under certain conditions be heard from distances of up to 50 square miles.
The soul-bracing wolf cry can penetrate the grey shield of human indifference. It would be a travesty to begin a regressive killing of such intelligent, highly social creatures with their wondrously profound call of the wild.
* I am a strong nature advocate, a Defenders of Wildlife member, the kind who’s truly touched by a recent birthday gift of a tree being planted in my honor in a National Forest. Thanks, Ann and Richard.