The Grey Ghost

This is a post about spoilers. Or rather, it’s a post about what people call spoilers. And it will contain spoilers, if you think that’s the right word to use, which I don’t.

This post will specifically, and right off the bat, completely reveal the ending of the film The Grey. I almost wrote, “the Joe Carnahan film, The Grey,” and then thought about calling it, “the Liam Neeson film, The Grey,” or even “that film in which Liam Neeson tapes a bunch of broken glass to his fists so he can pummel some wolves.”

I did not, you will notice, write any of those things. Because that is the subject for another post.

Here is what happens at the end of the film The Grey:





Nothing happens. But let me explain.

First; I liked The Grey. I watched it with a scientist, who did not care for it. She felt that it was unbelievable and she was and is correct. But I liked it.

I like it because I believe it was not intended to be believable. That it was, instead, an externalized presentation of one man’s internal state. A variation on the  Dead Man theme. The events in the film, to my eye, do not actually happen. There are many clues that this is the case. The first is the title. If you watch The Grey, ask yourself: what in this film is grey? And what is black or white?

I brought marshmallows. They’re grey.

The Grey on the surface is the story of a man in dire straits, attempting to survive the aftermath of a plane crash while being hunted by wolves. First, though, Liam Neeson’s character, Ottway, puts the barrel of a loaded rifle in his mouth. He does not  kill himself in the film, but still: that is the only real moment in the movie. The rest is commentary on that instant.

Within the film, a series of increasingly unbelievable things happen to Ottway. He survives a plane crash by flying out of sight of the wreckage and landing in the snow without any harm to his body. He doesn’t even lose his shoes or rip his nice grey sweater. He leads the 7, no 6, no 5, no… however many survivors towards whatever survival he can imagine. They jump off cliffs into trees. They survive frozen rivers without even drying their clothing. Etc. Etc.

Not realistic says the wife, agrees the husband.

Head bites

Head bites

Anyway. Despite Ottway’s wish to end his life, he repeatedly commits to staying alive. He chooses to fight to live in a way in which his dwindling number of companions do not. One at a time, each of the others all give up. One looks down when he should not. One can’t keep up. One refuses to hold his breath. One literally just sits down to die. Not Ottway. Not even when he finds himself in the wolves’ den, which it turns out—tellingly—he has spent the entire film fleeing towards not from. Not even when, against preposterous odds, he prepares to battle hand-to-paw.

The Grey

Pre-Sterilized Fisticuffs

So. At the end of The Grey, if you’ve seen the trailer, you will expect Liam Neeson to tape some miniature bottles of alcohol to his fist and break them so he’s got an insane and pre-sterilized knuckle duster. You expect him to face the Alpha Wolf, mano-a-lupo. And this happens. He tapes the bottles. He breaks them. He tapes a knife into his other fist. The Alpha Wolf (black, by the way) descends towards Ottway. Ottway shows the intensity of his will to live. And then the film ends.

Because it does not matter if Ottway kills the wolf and survives or if the opposite happens (an eventuality which seems much more likely). It does not matter because it is not happening. What is happening, is that Ottway is deciding to live. Ottway, seeing the end of his existence at hand, chooses instead to fight for another day, for any other day, even one without his wife, who has left him. He looks at the reasons there are to live, and chooses to try. Even though death is inevitable.

Perhaps then, he pulls the rifle from his mouth, or perhaps not. We don’t know. The film ends.

Now, you may argue convincingly that, right or wrong, this does not make an exceptionally great film. I’m not interested in fighting about that with you or with wolves or with Liam Neeson. I, as I said, enjoyed The Grey. I didn’t say I cared about it strongly. Neeson’s performance had an intensity that reminded me that his own wife has died tragically—I felt his pain and his anger and believed in them. I liked the supporting cast, even Dermot Mulroney. I thought the D.P. (which stands for Director of Photography if you’re 14 and spend a lot of time on the internet) built an interesting look for the film, particularly in the opening scenes, and that it was captivating visually even on a crappy rental house TV with blown contrast. And I’m glad Ottway decided to fight to live, even if he did so only in his mind.

None of that particularly matters. What I am interested in talking about is spoilers. And I’m sorry it took me a while to get there.

I watched The Grey. When it ended I thought, “Boy, I bet a lot of people who went to see this film in the theater on a Saturday night were seriously pissed when it ended.” They were promised Neeson v. Wolf featuring glass fisticuffs and The Grey did not deliver.

Then I thought, would it spoil this movie to know that you don’t get to see that promised fight? Or even if you knew from the start that it’s not about a man versus wolves at all?

I think that surprise is a valuable element in storytelling, which includes film-making. I also think, as Alfred Hitchcock said better than I could:

There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

So. Let us think of our favorite films, shall we? Ready? Good. You’re all thinking about Jaws? Me too. Excellent choice. In the end, Hooper survives and Chief Brody survives and poor old Quint gets eaten by a giant shark with really really bad indigestion.


Farewell and adieu you ladies of Spain

Now, go watch Jaws again. Does it matter at all that you KNOW how it ends? No? I didn’t think so. That’s because Jaws doesn’t suck. If you tell a story well, being immersed in the story is the joy of the experience. Hearing Quint tell why he won’t wear a life jacket is captivating every single time that Robert Shaw delivers those lines. An interesting story remains interesting even if the surprise is spoiled. There may be some additional pleasure on the first viewing of Jaws, sure, not knowing how it will end, but there will also be additional pleasure on the 15th viewing of Jaws, when you just feel at home on the Orca and prepare for the battle that will surely come.

As another example, let’s think about the movie The Crying Game. I saw that movie when it came out, so yes, I’m old. Here’s what I remember about it.

  1. Stephen Rea falls for a woman who turns out to be a man.
  2. I don’t need to see that movie again.

Not that it was a terrible film, but it was, in my faded memory at least, solely interesting for the twist. So if that surprise got “spoiled,” sure. That movie would be pointless to see. (I’d argue it was pointless to see anyway.) But if you told me 18 paragraphs or whatever ago that nothing happens at the end of The Grey, I’m not sure my enjoyment would have decreased any watching that picture.

There are twist endings that are good. But I believe the difference between a film with surprises that are fine and films with surprises that are great is that the latter cannot be spoiled even if the surprise is.

Take The Usual Suspects. Now, I’m sure many of you love that film. Personally, I thought it was dopey despite its good cast. Kevin Spacey is Keyser Söze, the super-mysterious and extra-powerful criminal: surprise! Except if he is, why did he put himself in a position where he could get arrested just so he could punish a few other low-level criminals? That makes no sense. None. And doesn’t he realize that now the police know who he is and what he looks like? His whole mystery shenanigan is blown. Totally and forever. INTERPOL has his deets. Good thing he punished those low level crims, though… I thought the film was a fun ride, but once the surprise is blown, I have to go back and wonder what else was there? Why would I watch it again?

Compare that to The Third Man. Harry Lime is alive! Oops. I spoiled it. Now there’s nothing to enjoy or think about or appreciate in that film. Or maybe, it doesn’t matter that you know the twist, because you’re invested in the character of Holly Martins. You’re there, in post-war Vienna, trying to make sense of right and wrong. And even when you know what will happen, the film remains captivating.

Third Man

Descend, if you will, into the depths.

What I’m getting at is simple: you can’t spoil a great film. You can only spoil a mediocre film. As a test of this hypothesis, watch this College Humor video in which they spoil the ending of 100 movies. Then ask yourself: which of those films would I watch again—or recommend someone watch for the first time—even if the surprise was spoiled.

The other ones? Not good films.

20 responses on “The Grey Ghost

  1. Audiences tend to hate movies like The Grey where they have to comprehend what the film is about to understand why it ends where it ends. The Color of Money comes to mind when (SPOILER, suckers) Paul Newman and Tom Cruise finally face off across the pool table for a REAL game to decide who’s best, and right as Newman breaks, he says “I’m back!” and bam! That’s the end. Because it doesn’t matter who wins. The movie is about Fast Eddie Felson getting back his pool groove, and the moment he fully gets it, that’s the end of the movie.

  2. Pingback: Death By Backstory | Stand By For Mind Control·

  3. I watched The Grey. And yeah, while it’s nothing fantastic, it’s actually a pretty enjoyable movie. Neeson does a great job. And certainly if we go with your notion that none of it is really happening, it’s an even better movie. A much better movie. So much so that I think that isn’t what they were going for. I feel like they were going for something a bit more literal. Everyone slowly but surely getting killed or giving up propels Neeson to want to live. Although the problem with that is that he pretty much makes this decision the moment he survives the crash. It’s just that at the end, he really truly seriously wants to live, even if he lives and dies on the same day, as his dad’s saying goes. Which I think makes it a less powerful movie than it could have been. Like the filmmakers didn’t really think through the theme as much as they might have.

    Back to the idea that none of it is really happening, if that was really what was going on, then I think that failed too. Without being blatant about such a thing, they could still suggest it more than they did. They could still subtly build up to it. Because really the only way it’s suggested is through stupid unbelievable things happening. Like what was the deal with the guy leaping over the gorge? And then he ends up on top of tree? Wtf? Did he turn into a flying squirrel? Anyway, it’s just that the unbelievable stuff was typically mundane for this kind of movie. It might have been in any action movie. So re-interpreting it as purposefully misleading feels like a stretch. Though as an idea for an action movie, it’s great. I hope someone steals it and makes something even better than The Grey.

  4. then why end before the wolf death match? if they’re just making a dumb action movie, they’d be insane to cut before the climax. someone had to fight the money men to stop the film there. someone with some kind of vision. and mundane… or too subtle… i disagree. i watched it. that’s what i got: it’s not real. and the end is the kick viewers need to ask themselves, “why?”

    now, it’s flawed, sure. but i’m seeing it as glass half-full.

    also: his ending up in the wolves’ den to me is another nod. no matter what we do, we will die. all you can do is fight for another day.

    maybe it wasn’t meant as literally as “it’s all in his head” but i’m sticking with the film as allegory instead of action.

  5. Well, yes. Right. That’s what I’m saying. It’s an allegory that was pretty good, but not great. But it wasn’t meant as a fantasy inside his head.

    The seemingly dopey elements that weren’t realistic weren’t purposefully put there to indicate it wasn’t real, they were just elements they glossed over because they weren’t telling an actual realistic survival story.

    • maybe. who cares? my interpretation is vastly more interesting and that’s more important to me than what Carnahan thought he was doing. or didn’t think he was doing.

      if i can make a mediocre film fascinating with the power of my mind, who can stop me? next you’ll be telling me the Arrival isn’t a comedy.

      feel the hate, SB. come to the dark side.

      • The Arrival is a touching, fact based love story between Charlie Sheen and an extra-terrestrial, and no one will ever convince me otherwise.

  6. SB, I admire your ability to see meaning where there is none. The Gray was a movie written by 10 year old boys FOR 10 year old boys. It’s the worst example of lazy, hackneyed movie making, parading around a man in full heroic drag with the monsters pasted in afterwards .. first he supermans his way out of the plane crash, then does a guided practice for the dying tibetan-lama style for his crew-mate.. stopping afterwards for a manly grimace bursting with about as much emotion as a manga samurai doing the ‘twitchy eye’ thing. Ugh, throw in some ‘weak’ characters trying to rob the dead to incite his moral outrage. I know, I’m sorry, you didn’t want to barney over the movie but I can’t stop myself.. he’s just a 2-D cardboard cut out in a blizzard of CGI snow. It’s an artists vision of hell, where even the snow can’t make you feel cold. How dare you make me think twice about it?? How dare You???! Oh god, now I’m starting to see it too…. nooo…… it was a metaphor for the immediate threat of death invoking his will to live…argrhhhh…

    • See? I told you. Just because it LOOKS like a shitty action film doesn’t mean we can’t find something decent within it. It’s no Dead Man, but I liked it.

      And although we are quite simliar, I am EG and SB is SB. It is much easier to tell us apart in person. Probably.

  7. I’m still mad at you, whoever you are. Thanks for enriching my life, or whatever. Although I’m beginning to see the advantage of uncovering the real, human communication behind poorly rendered works of art (or in this case, straight to video cow-plop). I mean, it beats the hell out of direct piss-taking, because we’re all a bit spoiled for choice there and doing that batman voice really hurts my throat, dammit.

  8. I would say that this blog has about half of the hidden clues covered. Well done. This was all so well hidden that the critics called it an atheistic film. I could tell you things about the hidden meaning in this film that would blow away everyone reading this. It is some of the most advanced work of it’s kind I have ever had the privilege to see. I am starting a competition for the best essay on this one – at least then we will have a legacy of these discussions to bound-out the meaning. Excellent. We should meet EG. I think we both must be very successful.

    • C’mon, Simon. Tell us all the things that would blow everyone away! Although I will decline your kind offer of a meeting—other successful people make me nervous.

      You have, of course, seen Dead Man?

      • And, while we’re speaking of films in which the lead character is dead: The Lone Ranger. Yes. The new one. It’s amazing.

    • The Evil Genius, is, of course, merely toying with you, Simon, curious to see if you will understand what’s written between the lines of his responses. The truth–and I may only reveal one tiny scrap of it here, on a public forum–is that the reason EG covered only half of the hidden clues in the Grey is, as you well know, because the general public is not at present prepared to hear the other half. They may never be. Time will tell. Meanwhile, a meeting is being arranged. We can’t speak openly of its details here, but rest assured, when the time comes, you will know where to go and what to do.

  9. I’m back!
    The Movie is a homage to Blake. It is so William Blake that it is the ultimate tribute and an absolute refutation to all faiths and religions that God exists as a benevolent being. God punishes.
    Foremost you have to understand that the charters, apart from Ottaway do no exist. Ottaway is effectively a lost soul trapped in eternal purgatory due to his sin for committing suicide.
    In Blake’s Mythology the primordial man, Albion is split into four Zoas, and these match each of the supporting characters.
    They all suffer a fate upon judgement day (death) except for Ottaway. He is fated to live eternally just like Blake’s “the eternal man”. In fact, as you pointed out, it is his choice to “fight another day” that locks him into purgatory – a self-fulfilling and self-committing endless battle with the wolf.
    To make it even more clear, Blake wrote the poem “My Spectre Around Me”. In that poem, “the wild beast guards my way” and “he scents thy footstep in the snow”. In fact, you hardly have to read the entire poem to realize that it is an almost exact match with Ottaway’s arctic ordeal. But here it is for spoilers:

    My spectre around me night and day
    Like a wild beast guards my way.
    My emanation far within
    Weeps incessantly for my sin.

    A fathomless and boundless deep,
    There we wander, there we weep;
    On the hungry craving wind
    My spectre follows thee behind.

    He scents thy footsteps in the snow,
    Wheresoever thou dost go
    Through the wintry hail and rain.
    When wilt thou return again?

    Dost thou not in pride and scorn
    Fill with tempests all my morn,
    And with jealousies and fears
    Fill my pleasant nights with tears?

    Seven of my sweet loves thy knife
    Has bereaved of their life.
    Their marble tombs I built with tears
    And with cold and shuddering fears.

    Even the marble tombs bit sounds like burial in snow. But then, perhaps I am going too far.
    Then there is Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence”. It might seem to be about faith being able to save lost souls. But in fact, it doesn’t matter. It is all a state of mind. In that poem:

    Every Night & every Morn
    Some to Misery are Born.
    Every Morn & every Night
    Some are Born to sweet Delight.
    Some are Born to sweet Delight,
    Some are born to Endless Night.

    Blake is saying that our lives are defined by these shifting states. We go from being sad to happy and back again. The process doesn’t end… unless you find some way to break out of it. Ottaway is stuck. His faith does not matter because there is no God listening. Yet purgatory is real. He has chosen to continue fighting as his fate. This is why he cannot die. As Hitchcock said, surprise is the highlight of the story.
    We find out at the end that he does not die. It is not a cliff hanger. It is an admission. Ottaway is is purgatory. Just as we are not allowed to see him die, neither can we see ourselves once dead. It is atheism. The viewer loses their innocence because Ottaway is never rescued.

    And as you hinted, it shares a lot in common with the Dead Man.
    The Dead Man takes it’s inspiration from Henri Michauxt’s quote: “It is preferable not to travel with a dead man.” This quote was bore out of his understanding of Blake. It is a relatively new construct in cinematography. The dead man is a character who must survive eternally. So ultimately this is a ghost story. Spoiler alert!
    In fact, the book is even called “Ghost Walker”.

    Blake often though that he was two men. One was himself, and the other one, his specter. The specter in this film is clearly the wolf. But isn’t it curious wording. Traditional Christianity identifies specters a ghosts that actually appear. Many people think Blake saw this as real. Was he a schizophrenic? Clearly he was reading demonology. But why, is this so important in the film. Is the wolf a demon? Is this an admission of heaven and hell? I think at this point I will stop. Like many people I have read Blake and gone mad. I suggest you forget you ever read this post or that will happen to you too. I wanted to leave it a few years before I responded to this post to protect you for reading this heresy.

    What I would finish to say, is that this is the ultimate interpretation of Blake’s work. MacKenzie Jeffers clearly loves Blake. Either that, or atheism. I guess this is one of those authors we would all like to entertain with some fava beans and a nice chianti. fth fth fth fth :-)

    • Well done, Simon. You have peeled back the first layer of the onion. Three years from now I will post my response. I suggest that you immediately begin preparing yourself, spiritually, to face the depth of its unnameable truth. Fail to do so, and face oblivion.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.