Friday, May 11, 2012

Shades of Grey in the Beard of Awesomeness... When is a Wolf Not a Wolf?

The thing to keep in mind with Joe Carnahan's most recent film THE GREY is that the wolves are not really wolves.  This isn't a spoiler or anything.  It's not like the wolves are werewolves or dickwolves or anything, or evil space mutants, or ghosts, or vampires, or Nazis, or sexy time-travelling zombie-slaying strippers, or time-travelling cops from TIME COP, or man-hating Succubuses (Succubai?), or soul-sucking gold-digging ex wives, or murderous stepfathers, or chainsaw-wielding maniacs with burlap sacks over their faces, or murderous hit men, or cross-dressing cannibals, or rapist demons from the tenth circle of hell, or terrorists.  And I don't mean that the wolves aren't wolves because they were obviously CG and technically the culmination of a bunch of 1's and 0's.  Of course for those of you who haven't seen THE GREY, you're probably wondering "What fucking wolves?"  and rightfully so, however using your powers of deduction you might surmise that the plot of the movie involves wolves in some capacity.  But I'm not going to get into plot yet, because to understand the plot you need to understand the wolves.

Won't somebody please think about the wolf children?

The reason I want to belabor the point is because of my theatre-going experience, where yet again I seemed to be surrounded by morons, half-educated university students who believe they actually have an opinion and hipster yuppies who think they're smart because they've listened to a few bands nobody else has heard of and who can sleep soundly at night secure in the fact that vinyl represents the epitome of audio technology and anybody who believes otherwise is not only wrong but mentally deficient in some capacity.  These kinds of people are easily confused and distracted by bright, shiny objects like movie trailers or the latest iPhone and usually have their heads so far up their own asses that they can't see the forest for their lower intestines.  

But it's not totally their fault.  It was partially the fault of an ass-backwards marketing campaign that for some reason tried to sell THE GREY as a balls to the wall action adventure where Liam Neeson fights packs of ravenous wolves with broken bottles and bowie knives taped to his hands.  I mean, it was never meant to be a documentary of Neeson's life, no matter how eerie the similarities.  I suppose they were trying to build on Carnahan's most lucrative filmography like SMOKIN' ACES and THE A TEAM.  I guess the studio execs figured that they could just label the movie as an action film, cut together a trailer with some exciting action elements and then people seeing the movie would just assume it was an action movie.  I guess they figured that people don't actually watch the movie they pay upwards of 10 dollars to see (not including the almost 20 bucks for snackage) and just kind of sit there in the theatre, staring blankly at the screen, slack-jawed and drool-soaked, waiting for the lights to come on again to signal them it's time to start texting again.  The studio big wigs must think that the entire movie-going public is so incredibly fucking stupid that they don't actually care what flashes across the screen as they struggle to concentrate through an energy drink-induced haze.

Unfortunately, for the most part the studios cocksuckers are right.  Most people are so fucking spun around in circles they don't know what the hell is going on.  But for those of us with at least half a brain in our skulls, and for the benefit of the Easily Confused Masses, how they should have marketed THE GREY was "from the director of NARC."  One, because NARC is the best example of Carnahan's directorial work, and two because NARC was closer stylistically to THE GREY.  And the thing is that neither one of these movies was summer blockbuster action extravaganza material.  And that's part of what makes them both great films.

What did you say about my mother?
I don't want to throw Carnahan to the wolves here or anything like that.  In my opinion, though, Carnahan's at his best with slow, brooding, contemplative, dramatic fare.  That's what THE GREY was all about, despite deceptive trailers trying to construct it as testosterone-infused action when what it really was was testosterone-infused contemplation.  At first glance, a basic summary of the plot makes it seem like an action-survivalist epic.  A bunch of oil workers on their way back home survive a plane crash then must then survive the harsh Alaskan landscape and a pack of ravenous, extremely territorial, surprisingly lethal, well hung wolves using only their wits, whatever they can scavenge from the crash and the experience of wolf expert extraordinaire Ottway (Neeson).  One might then assume based on information gathered from the trailers that the rest of the movie is nothing but cliff-jumping and bare-knuckle brawling with local wildlife.  But one would assume wrong.

Remember the wolves?  How I said they were important?  How I said I was going to talk about them then seemed to ignore them completely?  Well, prepare to have your mind blown.  

The wolves are not really wolves.

The wolves are death.


See, I remember this one asshole complaining about a bunch of stuff at the end of the movie.  His one complaint was about how the wolves were CG.  But that was the whole fucking point.  The wolves weren't literally wolves.  Wolves never are.  Wolves have become a powerful image for humankind's darkest fears in cultures the world over.  There's something primal and instinctual about the image of the wolf.  We are simultaneously terrified and seduced by it, perhaps because the wolf reminds us so much of ourselves and our own dark desires.  The wolf represents the tension between our desire to run wild as a lone wolf and follow our base urges and the need to overcome those instincts with the structure and civilization of the pack.  We associate with wolves because, like us, they are organized killers.  Wolves are also commonly thought of as creatures of the night, howling at the moon, a pair of glowing eyes lurking in the shadows.  We feel a kinship to the wolf so strong that we brought them into our homes and dubbed them our best friends.  It's no accident that in folklore the myth that persevered was the werewolf, and not the werebear, or werefox, or werelion.  We're so fascinated with wolves that we fantasize about transforming into them.  They are agents of the uncanny, representing that border to darkness that we both fear and long to cross.  It's no wonder, then, that Carnahan used them to represent that greatest of unknowns.

There are some action elements to THE GREY, its mostly a philosophical examination of death.  It's dudes sitting around a campfire in the middle of the night surrounded by a pack of bloodthirsty wolves musing about life and death.  It's a group of men pushed to their mental and physical limits and finding out if they have the sheer willpower to "want the next minute more than the last."  THE GREY was a philosophical call to arms about what it takes to keep fighting for life in the face of certain and eminent death.  It was also about the way we face that death, letting it wash over and accepting it, or fighting to the bitter end.  There was one cool scene at the end where Neeson's Ottway, after surviving a number of ordeals in the Alaskan wilderness, calls out in desperation for help from God:

"Do something.  Do something.  You phony prick fraudulent motherfucker.  Do something!  Come on!  Prove it! Fuck faith!  Earn it!  Show me something real!  I need it now.  Not later.  Now!  Show me and I'll believe in you until the day I die.  I swear.  I'm calling on you.  I'm calling on you!"

And then, at his lowest point, after feeling like he's exhausted every possible reserve he has at his disposal calls upon a higher power desperate for something, anything to help him get to the next minute, he (of course) receives no response and it is at this point that he makes the most enlightened statement of the whole film:

"Fuck it.  I'll do it myself."

It wasn't just a rejection of the authority or influence of some higher power and the gods of our fathers (which is pretty fucking cool in and of itself), but also a resounding battle cry of self-reliance and self-determination.  If you're going to fight for something, ultimately the strength you draw on comes from you.  THE GREY explores different motivations to keep on fighting (and fucking), but whatever the motivation or inspiration -whether it be family, pussy, or money- the will to keep on going, to pick yourself up for one more round comes from you and you alone.

Not only did Joe Carnahan craft an excellent movie, but he also managed to make poetry cool.  There's a flashback to Ottway's father, a "real Irish son of a bitch," a working man and a bit of an alcoholic, and also an amateur poet.  At key moments in the film Ottway recalls the poem which goes something like this:

Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I'll ever know
Live and die on this day
Live and die on this day

I don't know if it's something Carnahan wrote himself or something he picked up somewhere, but either way it's a pretty kick-ass mantra, and it's some poetry that even the hairiest, barrel-chestiest, large-testiclest, beer-swillinges, manly man can get behind.  It pretty much sums up the philosophical tenets that the film espouses.  Life is a battle that wears you down, kind of like an all you can eat Chinese buffet, and even though your metaphysical bowels might take a pounding, you have to keep going back for more greasy, MSG-infused slop to make sure you get your money's worth...

OK, I think it's pretty obvious that I loved the shit out of this movie, so I'll call it quits here so you can go and check it out yourself.  I will end this review by briefly mentioning the end of the movie which one yuppie douchebag in the theatre referred to as a "cop out," but which was absolutely perfect.  He was referring to a showdown which is implied, but never shown.  But, again, that was the whole fucking point which he missed entirely.  It's not about the result of the showdown, because in the fight against the wolves, everybody ultimately loses.  The point was that Ottway wasn't giving up, and he was going to fight tooth and nail right to the bitter end, and he was going to face death on his feet and go down swinging.  For a fine return to form for Joe Carnahan I'm going to give THE GREY a 9/10 = One Howling Wolf Head Stalking You In The Darkness

People think I got the power 'cause I got the wolves.  No.  I got the power because I'll let the wolves out.  And if you goddamn don't understand that, then you goddamn don't understand me.