The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Staying Alive: The Contemporary Survival Film

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article NOTE: This article contains spoilers for The Grey, 127 Hours and Into the Wild.

Someone said (I think Freud) that a nightmare is a dream come true. In the bustling, overpopulated, overdeveloped, congestion-charged world in which we live, who hasn’t dreamed of getting away - of escaping to the wilderness where at last we can have a one-on-one immersive relationship with nature: unfettered, unhindered, unmediated? But just as the lottery can seem designed to advertise how bad it is when the dreams of poor people come true, so films about the wild can often seem to be warnings not to go there. Just don’t. Even (or perhaps especially) if you really, really want to. The dream of escape can easily turn into a nightmare.

Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007) is based on the true story of a troubled young man, Chris McCandless, who desperately wanted to get away from the corrupting influence of modern life and the pre-plotted trajectory of his life. The book by Jon Krakauer (of Into Thin Air fame) is a mite thin, a stretched magazine article which swells the page count with some digressions into the author’s own fascination with the wild. Played by Emile Hirsch with a likeable intensity, Chris seems to have a pretty good crack of the whip.

Once he’s cut up his cards and burnt his savings, he sets off on a voyage of discovery, meeting up with some fairly decent people along the way: Vince Vaughn’s boozy farmer, Hal Holbrook’s old codger, Ron, and a whole hippy commune in the desert, including a girlfriend in a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart. Chris also gets to go canoeing down the Colorado river, see some great sunsets and expound his Jack London/Thoreau-inspired philosophy along the way. Of course, he also has some bad luck, getting himself roughed up, and he seems particularly inept when it comes to the more hostile nature of nature - flash floods and poison mushrooms. But on the whole we and the film - and, significantly, the film’s soundtrack, a series of songs by Eddie Vedder - are with him. If he is a fool, then he’s a holy fool, his guileless rejection of society and his madcap scheme to somehow get behind the horizon are inspiring, and this inspiration is inscribed into the film by the way it will ultimately rejuvenate Ron.

Chris is the one that got away, and the tragic ending to which he succumbs is to some extent a cautionary tale. Tom Waits’ beggar in The Fisher King (1991) tells Jeff Bridges that he is ‘the moral stop light’. When someone gets a fantasy of stabbing the boss with a pencil, they remember Tom begging at the railway station and it holds their hand. We put up with the various compromises and humiliations that life has for us because rejecting it would be catastrophic and would mean rejecting all the safety and the luxury and the pleasure that comes with modernity. Likewise, Chris plays out our youthful fantasies with a vigour we couldn’t hope to match. The best we can do is ‘take a year out’. How feeble does that seem when put beside such a lifetime commitment as Chris’? But, then again (and here comes the stoplight), it’s not a very long lifetime to commit to.

Into the Wild (as a book) makes much of Chris’ literary inspiration and is careful to place him in the context of an American tradition of social criticism and wanderlust. Instead, Into the Wild (the film) is intensely nostalgic for the sixties. The film it most resembles is Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), but whereas Captain America and Wild Bill are already jaded and doomed from the first frame, Chris seems ready to escape the pull of that influence. He’s the Sixties without Vietnam and doesn’t succumb to free love and motherly affections of Catherine Keener. His New Orleans trip is actually Los Angeles, and the psychedelia comes from the effects of isolation and increasingly hostile marginalisation rather than drugs. His political worldview is cheerfully underdeveloped, refusing to engage in argument, but happy to preach his vision: ‘Do you see this, God?’ he shouts as he encourages the old man Roy to climb a hill.

Into the Wild is essentially a modernist work. It sees a fractured reality - the modern wasteland of urbanized living - and posits a tragically impossible but Romantic elsewhere, which Chris ultimately reaches only for it to kill him through a series of unhappy ironies. Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is, by contrast, postmodern. Despite the harrowing extremity of the true story - man gets arm crushed by rock, trapped for 127 hours, finally chops off arm with very small knife - the film is really a kind of joke, a film which begins with a superficial opposition to society, but which ultimately renders escape from it into a facile game. The joke can be spotted early on with Aron Ralston (James Franco) packing to go on his trip and missing the Swiss Army knife which is the foreground of the shot as he reaches for it at the back of a shelf. If only… we immediately think. Then there’s also a missed phone call, which again, if only…

Aron makes these mistakes in the context of an approach to editing that parodies the velocity of the kind of lifestyle-ADD that only eventually reveals itself to be for a mobile phone or insurance company. Boyle uses his whole tool kit. Split screen, a Koyaanisqatsi-lite (1982) series of crowd scenes representing ‘society’, aforementioned ADD editing, a percussive, super-hyped score and Franco’s own smugly energetic performance. This is postmodern wilderness: the weekend wilderness, living life gripped and ripped, like Owen Wilson’s Hansell in Zoolander (2001), who was “always more interested in what bark was made out of on a tree…” Aron’s soundtrack is on his i-pod, and his film is partly directed by himself with video cameras and still photographs. When the accident happens and his life is on the line, it in no way subverts what has gone before. If anything, it suddenly gives a purpose to all the techno wizardy and narcissism. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Aron finds himself interesting: finally his narcissism is justified. In fact, having his arm trapped under a rock is not really a misfortune, rather it’s an opportunity to spend some time reflecting on his young life and where he has arrived so far. ‘This rock was waiting for me,’ he says. ‘All my life I’ve been heading towards it.’ Of course.

He drinks his wee, makes his messages, communes with nature (a bird flies above him regularly), faces up to the possibility of his death, remembers a relationship which he neglected to death, comes to realise his arrogance and shortcomings, decides to be a better person. Danny Boyle endorses this by not changing the film at all stylistically. You would expect the film to switch gears once Aron has his arm trapped but no: there are still the odd point-of-view shots (inside a bottle looking up at Aron’s mouth), the wacky editing, dream sequences and memories, and a Gollum-like soliloquy done as a chat show with applause and whatnot. The rock doesn’t challenge Aron’s preconceptions, rather it repairs details and offers him a life lesson. Aron will exit the experience shy an arm, but enriched as a human being. Even the cutting off of the arm becomes an exercise in some primal scream type nuttiness. As he leaves his severed arm behind Aron says to the rock ‘Thank you.’ Nature has not really done anything to Aron except validate him.

In the epilogue we see Franco confronting the real Aron with kid and child. And then a photograph of him climbing what looks like the Hilary Step on Everest and the line, ‘Aron always leaves a note saying where he’s gone.’ This has to be the biggest undercut of an entire movie since Alex deLarge’s (Malcom McDowell) exclamation, ‘I was cured, all right!’ at the end of A Clockwork Orange (1969). The game continues. I suppose it is a story of resilience, persistence and how (as in the book of Clockwork Orange) young men grow up and have families. Thank you.

So if Into the Wild is modern and 127 Hours postmodern, then what is this year’s The Grey? First of all, what it isn’t. It isn’t what you think it’s going to be from the advertising campaign, nor from the phoney wolf cruelty hoo-ha, nor from the presence of Liam Neeson, whose lead roles have tended to be unexceptional since 1996’s Michael Collins (with the possible exception of the anomalous Kinsey [2004]). That is to say, it isn’t one of Neeson’s cheque-picking-up performances with wolves standing in for Albanian pimps. Neeson plays John Ottway, a defeated and suicidal man who is employed as a hunter, protecting oil workers from wolves in the wild. When a plane carrying a contingent of workers back to civilisation crashes, it is Ottway who takes the lead and attempts to save the men from themselves, the cold, and a pack of wolves that is circling them. So far, so routine, and with a director like Joe Carnahan, who has spent most of the last decade with his tongue firmly positioned in his cheek (Smokin’ Aces [2006], The A-Team [2010]), it would be perfectly reasonable to imagine the film will be a by-the-numbers men-vs-nature picture. But, remarkably and thankfully, both Neeson and Carnahan have decided to take this idea seriously.

From the plane crash on, the camera attempts to put us in the action, and the film benefits from its extensive location shooting and the relative absence of CGI rubbish or Ridley Scott snow. More importantly, the film treats death seriously. When a man is bleeding from wounds sustained, Ottway brushes away the others to care for him. We’re expecting him to show some medical expertise or rugged frontiersman know-how, but instead he tells the man: ‘You’re dying, you’ll feel it happening now,’ and basically talks him through death. Remarkably, failure is an option. People will die. No one is coming to save you, and sometimes you have to accept that. The deaths are occasionally savage, but there is little that can be done. Ottway’s leadership and his survival skills only serve to prolong the agony. And anyway, it seems he is only doing it out of habit. When they speak of God, he dismisses the notion. He isn’t the only one. One of the men accepts his death: he’s broken his leg and he can’t walk, so he waves the others on. He has a view of the mountain and says this is about as good as it gets.

The men don’t come together. Self-discovery happens, but it takes place at the point of dying or even posthumously. Ottway doesn’t discover the value of life, discover resilience, find freedom or beauty - in short, he doesn’t say ‘thank you’. Everything he does turns to dust and ashes. He doesn’t save anyone. The last man drowns in front of his eyes because his foot has become jammed under a rock, his face just under the water. Ottway calls out to his god but, receiving no reply, growls ‘Fuck it! I’ll do it myself’. The absurd nihilistic joke is that his prayers are then answered - not via salvation, but by the wolves whose den he has stumbled into. From the very beginning, Ottway has been a dead man on leave. His suicide is prevented by the howl of a wolf in the distance which distracts him, but he really has no life worth surviving for. His acceptance of this is courageous, but it is heartbreakingly bleak.

Father Barron, in his YouTube review, regards the film as half of the Job story, but his view of Job is based on a strategic omission. God’s answer to Job - that his suffering is all part of a complex, ultimately unfathomable plan for the universe - is a demonstrable falsehood, a rhetorical tour-de-force that effectively shuts him up. As readers we know that Job’s suffering is caused by a bet God made with Satan, and that it has no deeper significance than this. So in a sense the end of The Grey is a perfect rendering of the Job story. God sends the suicide - the means with which Ottway can get himself killed and yet retain his self-respect. Whether you read this as a kindness or a cruel joke is up to you, but what is sure is that Ottway doesn’t find peace in the wild - nor freedom, nor life lessons.

So whereas Into the Wild and 127 Hours create a wilderness that is either a lost refuge or an adventure playground, for The Grey the wild is, simply put, the universe in which we live.

This article was published on April 06, 2012.

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