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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Stephen Rea falls for a woman who turns out to be a man.
- 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.
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.