There's a scene in The Grey (2012, directed by Joe Carnahan) that I like quite a bit. In it, Liam Neeson's character has a crisis of faith. The movie has established that Neeson's character, Ottway, is an atheist, and this particular scene tests the old maxim that there are no atheists in foxholes. In a moment of weakness, he prays for some kind of deliverance from his predicament--which, it should be noted, is really friggin' dire. When no divine intervention is forthcoming, he says, "Fuck it, I'll do it myself." This scene encapsulates the movie. The cosmos, this movie suggests, doesn't even know we exist. The wolves who are this movie's main antagonists don't care who is faithful and who is unbelieving, who is good or who is bad, who is an asshole or who is a loving family man. They know only the red of fang and claw and act accordingly.
There's another scene in this movie, too, that puts an exclamation point on this. It comes before Ottman's crisis of faith, when Diaz (Frank Grillo) finally comes to the realization that he can't go on. He chooses his place of dying, a place with a spectacular view of the mountains and forest of Alaska. It's a place of great beauty. But he winds up just as dead. The universe is a beautiful place; beauty is a meaning that we attach to it that has no relationship to its fundamental indifference to human beings.
The Grey, it should be noted, is a terrifying horror movie. It's the best werewolf movie I've ever seen and there's nary a lycanthrope to be seen anywhere in the film. This movie plumbs a deeply seated atavistic terror of the wolf, one rooted in the fact that the wolf is one of mankind's oldest competitors, one of our oldest enemies. There are deadlier animals in the world, but none inspires the kind of fear that the wolf inspires. It's not the roar of bears or the rattle of rattlesnakes that festoon the ambient sound of any given horror movie. It's the howling of wolves. There's a reason for that. This, more than any film I've ever seen, understands the fear of wolves. This is something it makes flesh in a scene where the eyes of the wolves appear in the darkness. Just the eyes. Dozens of them. You don't need to see the rest, though you see the outline of the alpha wolf, and you know deep in your heart that our merry band of survivors is royally screwed. The movie makes good on that promise, too.
Nor, it should be mentioned, are the wolves the only terror at play in this film. There's the plane crash itself, a scene that will guarantee that this movie is never played on airplanes, one that suggests that the technologies with which human beings surround themselves are as fragile as human beings themselves in the face of a hostile universe. And there's the relentless enmity of our own bodies when pushed to the brink. Human endurance can only go so far. Oh, and gravity, too.
The story is simple: a plane full of petroleum workers north of the Arctic circle goes down in a storm, leaving the survivors, all seven of them, to trek across the wilderness to safety. Ottway, who is our central protagonist, is a hunter, paid by the oil company to shoot wolves and protect the workers. He's one of the survivors. He knows wolves, which is good, because the wolves come around soon enough. Our band of survivors have come down in the territory of a wolf's den, and the wolves are merciless in their assault. One by one, they whittle away the the stragglers. Ottway, we learn in the early part of the movie, is suicidal. He finds no meaning in his life after he has a falling out with his wife. But when confronted by his own mortality as he treks across the wilderness, he finds in himself the will to live. His life is distilled down to a basic primal urge. So, too, is it for his companions, who he describes as loners and assholes, men "unfit for mankind" and driven to the edge of the world. This isn't true, of course. During the course of the movie, we get a portrait of who each one of these men is as they face their deaths. There's a heartbreaking scene near the end of the movie when Ottway is looking through the collected wallets of the dead and we see the men with their families, with their children, with their girlfriends. There's meaning in their lives, if only because there's meaning in their connections to humanity. That connection to humanity is the only meaning that counts. The rest is silence.
This is a film that's deeply connected to an existential philosophy of life, and it's easy to pick out meanings in its sundry dramatic scenes, but you almost have to do this after the movie has ended because it's also a movie of punishing horrors. This is one of the most visceral films I've seen in a long time. It ratchets up the dread bit by bit from scene one and never, ever, provides a pressure release, not even in the inevitable and wholly fore-ordained scenes of violence when the wolves take what they want. Only a hard-core gorehound will get off on these scenes, though maybe not. This is a "feel-bad" movie and it does its job without any hint of mercy. I don't know what to think of its director, Joe Carnahan, who has spent the last ten years making films like The A-Team and Smokin' Aces. But he's also the man responsible for Narc, which was a kind of pulp masterpiece. And then there's this, which is another kind of masterpiece.
You want to know what I was thinking most of all as I drove home? I was thinking that this is the movie to show someone after they sit through The Tree of Life, because this has something of the same cinematic approach, with its fractured view of the glories of nature, but with none of the bullshit transcendence that Malick's film feels in its presence. There is no afterlife in this film's worldview, no reunion with loved ones on some ethereal beach after we die, no god laying the foundations of the world. There's only the cold, pitiless void that will neither mark our passage nor care that we ever existed at all. There's only the indifference of wolves howling in the night.