This film is not Taken with wolves.
Modern American culture is one terrified of death, and obsessed with maintaining the appearance of youth. This expresses itself in fetishization of technology , belief in various rapturous movements, and a refusal to acknowledge the need for end of life care. Nature doesn’t care how much we don’t want to die, it is inevitable. At best, human culture can aid in making the transition to death easy, and less painful. At it’s very heart, this is what The Grey is about.
Spoilers below, but there’s nothing revealed that either the cut for action trailer didn’t, or that would ruin the film experience.
Liam Neeson plays John Ottway, an aging man working as a sort of anti-wolf expert on an Alaskan oil drilling site far from the rest of civilization. It’s his responsibility to be on the lookout for wolves that come too close to the site, and to put down the ones that move in to attack the drilling crews. He doesn’t express much regret in killing, but there’s no joy either; he understands that they’re not evil creatures. In an early scene he shoots a wolf from a distance, then makes his way to it as it dies, offering some comfort as it struggles to breathe just a little more. Ottway is no Great White Hunter, no Sarah Palin-esque caricature gleefully slaughtering wildlife from a helicopter.
Ottway doesn’t seem to take joy in anything though. Much of the film’s first act dominated by a voice over of him struggling to write a suicide letter to his lost wife. He has no friends at the drill site, regarding everyone there (himself included) as people unfit to live in society. These are the people he’s paid to protect though, and even as rejects of humanity, he feels obligated to protect them from the cruelty of nature. In this film, Nature is presented as the cruelest of forces in that it simply doesn’t care; there’s no God(s) driving it, no fate, no destiny, not even luck. On the way back to Anchorage, Ottway’s plane crashes in the wilderness, and despite wishing for death just minutes ago in the film, he fights to stay alive. There’s something still motivating him even in the most dismal of scenarios.
Ottway is haunted by visions of his wife; otherworldly perfectly beautiful, filled in a room of beatific light, she comforts him with her touch and soothing words. These visions are the knife twists in his heart that remind him of how spiritually dead his life is, but also that life need not be so grim and awful. The plane crash is bookended by them, with her being violently dragged away as reality intrudes. He desperately wants to be back with her, but she’s lost to him, and his will to live isn’t driven by his love. He must live because there are others who crashed with him, and to selfishly let the cold take him would doom them to the same or worse fate. Kant would be proud.
In a scene that sets the tone for the duration, Ottway finds a dying man in the wreckage of the plane. Spurting arterial blood, there is nothing that can be done for him, and the other survivors are in a panic unsure of what to do. Ottway knows death intimately, and in a sequence that mirrors the comfort he gave to the wolf earlier, lays his hands on the man as he talks him through how to die in peace. Upon accepting death he’s able to go out thinking of his loved ones instead of dying in fear and terror. The other survivors look to Ottway for leadership, although this doesn’t go unchallenged forever.
The wolves arrive as Nature’s avatars. Attracted to the smell of death and an easy meal, the wolves change the situation from one of merely surviving against the elements, to one of physical confrontation and pursuit. The first death by wolves in the film is quite significant in that the wolves don’t eat the man. They’re no longer just playing the part of hungry scavengers, but see the humans as a territorial threat. Humanity has invaded Nature, and nature is fighting back. The film makes it clear that nature isn’t something to be demonized though, as it is littered with gorgeous shots of the Alaskan wilderness that stand in contrast to the utilitarian ugliness of the oilfield and the crashed plane.
With the decision to leave all but made for them by the wolves, they decide to collect the wallets from the dead. These wallets, and those that are added to the collection as the group dwindles, become something like a totem of civilization for the group. Leaving the wreck, a prayer for the dead is offered, but as none of the survivors are religious, the makeshift prayer ends up more plea than praise of god. By the time the next person dies, there is no offering to god.
While an anti-faith reading is the best supported, one could argue that the god of the film is the Old Testament God, and that the ordeal is all a punishment for Ottway’s suicide attempt. That would make it similar to A Serious Man, but also removes the themes that make such an emotionally harrowing movie also somewhat positive. In losing all faith in a higher power(be it god, luck, fate, destiny, etc…), the survivors find strength in each other, and to humanity at large. There’s no one coming to save them, so they must push themselves past their limits to save themselves. Even when that isn’t enough, it puts them in a better spiritual place than they were before, and are able to die with a degree of peace.
In the end, what more can we ask but that?