On Liam Neeson, wolves, and facing mortality

Before seeing “The Grey,” I got a bit of a lecture from two friends of mine. They think the flick should be boycotted, because it reinforces a stereotype that wolves are vicious killers. It’s the hunting of real wolves that gets them so riled up, and the animals’ deteriorating federal protections. Lawmakers, it seems, are making it easier for farmers to legally mow down wolves, whose carnivorous tendencies can be bad for the beef business.

Boycotting “The Grey” is not the answer to this problem. And anyway, this is a movie about Liam Neeson fighting a pack of wolves in the Alaskan wilderness. You think I’m missing that because of other people’s politics?

It’s important to know, firstly, that these aren’t actually wolves. They’re metaphors. Metaphors with big, sharp claws and teeth. Metaphors for death.

The second important thing to know is that Liam Neeson is one of the best, most awesome actors in movies, and three years ago his wife Natasha Richardson died in a skiing accident.

Neeson is in a lot of movies. Two of the trailers I saw before “The Grey” were for Liam Neeson movies (“Wrath of the Titans” and “Battleship”). “The Grey,” though, is the Liam Neeson movie, more than even “Schindler’s List.” This is a must-see for fans of his – a glimpse, I think, into the real man’s hard, sad soul.

In the darkly poetic opening minutes, his character Ottway shoots a wolf and then cries over its body. This scene is edited together with two others: Ottway in bed with his wife (presumably years ago), and Ottway leaving a bar so he can commit suicide outside in the snow.

Neeson looks so damn sad in these moments. It’s jarring to watch. “Not a second goes by I’m not thinking of you in some way,” we hear him say in voice over. “You left me and I can’t get you back. I move like the damned: cursed.”

We hear him say these words and watch him slowly put the barrel of a big gun in his mouth. He puts his hand on the trigger. Before he can pull, though, a howl comes from nearby woods. The wolves are calling to him, telling him “No.”

Because, again, these are metaphorical wolves. They are grey death. They stopped him from killing himself because if he’s going to die it has to be by more honest means. He has to face them. Then he’ll understand.

And Oh, Brother, does he face them. Ottway and a crew are flying out of Alaska when their plane is suddenly snagged by turbulence. I remember thinking “Cast Away” might have the best plane-crash scene ever. “The Grey’s” is better. The imagery is incredible, even as there’s this blazing sensation of speed and a general inability to see what’s actually happening.

Ottway survives intact, on a nasty patch of land where the wind sends granulated snow, the kind that hurts, screaming by horizontally. He starts rounding up the few survivors. Then the wolves start attacking in waves, leaving bloody messes of guts in the snow as they pick the men off one at a time.

This is my kind of movie, with deep, raw storytelling – a metaphysical film about men facing mortality. In one of the movie’s quieter scenes, we see the survivors chatting around a fire at night. One is fast asleep, but suddenly sits up straight and starts talking to his little sister. One of the others says the little sister died when she was young, and the guy’s hallucinating because his brain can’t get oxygen.

Another man talks about his baby daughter’s laugh. He says the little girl sometimes laughs so hard she starts wheezing, “like she can’t breathe. Like an old man.” He was laughing himself when he started the story, but by the end he’s overwhelmed by the fragility of his little girl’s life.

Ottway talks about his father, who wrote a poem he kept framed on a wall above their piano. The first line of the poem is “Once more into the fray….” The last line is “Live and die on this day.”

Ottway talks a man into death after the plane crash. He tells him, plainly, “You’re gonna die. That’s what’s happening.” The man begs and screams, but Ottway tells him it’s all right, asks him who he loves, tells him to let death slide over. Later, when one of the survivors won’t shut up, Ottway calls him out for pretending he’s not scared. Anyone who’s not scared is an idiot.

Last year, I reviewed this great little movie called “Restless,” directed by Gus Van Sant. It was about a pair of teen lovers with strange hobbies like drawing chalk outlines around themselves or sitting in the morgue and guessing what happened to the bodies in the lockers there.

What they were doing was acquainting themselves with death, because the boy was an orphan whose parents perished in an accident, and the girl had been diagnosed with a fatal disease. Knowing death brings comfort with it, the movie was saying.

I think “The Grey” is similar, though not nearly so sweet. Last year, Neeson cried as he told Esquire about the day Richardson died:

“I walked into the emergency — it’s like seventy, eighty people, broken arms, black eyes, all that — and for the first time in years, nobody recognizes me. Not the nurses. The patients. No one. And I’ve come all this way, and they won’t let me see her. And I’m looking past them, starting to push — I’m like, Fuck, I know my wife’s back there someplace. I pull out a cell phone — and a security guard comes up, starts saying, ‘Sorry, sir, you can’t use that in here,’ and I’m about to ask him if he knew me, when he disappears to answer a phone call or something. So I went outside. It’s freezing cold, and I thought, What am I gonna do? How am I going to get past the security?

“And I see two nurses, ladies, having a cigarette. I walk up, and luckily one of them recognizes me. And I’ll tell you, I was so fucking grateful — for the first time in I don’t know how long — to be recognized. And this one, she says, ‘Go in that back door there.’ She points me to it. ‘Make a left. She’s in a room there.’ So I get there, just in time. And all these young doctors, who look all of eighteen years of age, they tell me the worst.” He purses his lips, mouth dry. “The worst.”

It  cannot be a coincidence that Neeson is playing a tough, angry man crippled by sadness over his dead wife, facing his fear of death in a brutally cold environment. He can hear it, howling in the distance, and he takes it on. He and these men have no guns for their fight against the wolves. It’s just them. They’re scared.

Neeson curses God in this film with such contempt. God’s answer says everything.

Wolves are amazing. They’re dogs who don’t need or want people. Wolf packs are families like human families: a mated pair raising their litter of growing youngsters. They’re at the top of the food chain, strong enough to kill almost anything except a human with a gun. They’re elegant and athletic and tough as winter in the north.

They’re citizens on this planet just like we are, partners in a vast ecosystem. It truly bothers me that men are shooting wolves in parts of this country, with the government’s endorsement. It does not bother me, at all, that Liam Neeson takes them on and takes them down in “The Grey,” because his character Ottway isn’t killing wolves, he’s facing down mortality. He’s fighting a battle we’ll all have to face.

I really loved this movie. It’s incredibly exciting and totally intense, with death scenes unlike anything I’ve seen in a movie before. This is how men and wolves should meet in the wild: as animals. If hunters mean to keep killing wolves, they should show the animals respect. Put down the gun, tape some miniature liquor bottles between the knuckles of one hand and break them on a rock into spikes. Tape a hunting knife into the other hand.

Then see who wins. Good thing we’ve got guns.

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2 thoughts on “On Liam Neeson, wolves, and facing mortality

  1. When I first watch the movie, I thought of it literally, as a group of guys trying to fend off angry wolves, and I thought that they made a really dumb mistake by leaving the plan. It took me about a week to figure out that the whole movie was a metaphor for the various ways human beings face death. Once I saw it in that light, it made a lot more sense. Nice to see that I’m not the only one who came up with that interpretation.

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