Nobody who has ever attended the funeral of a person killed by their own hand and seen the salty faces of loved ones, felt the whirlwind of confusion and despair from those left behind could completely accept the lyrics of Mike Altman, son of director Robert Altman, whose famous words opened M*A*S*H (1970) and were written when he was 14-years-old: that “suicide is painless.”
And yet few would take umbrage with the suggestion that hitting the escape button is the easy way out; that the greater challenge is to stay on earth and – in the meaty parlance of the stereotypical male – “work ya shit out.”
It’s a challenge over 2000 Australians and more than one million people worldwide fail every year. Men are statistically far more likely to die by suicide than women and those who live in rural and remote locations — not unlike the oil-rigger community depicted in director Joe Carnahan’s new film The Grey — are particularly at risk.
The question of what it is about the male psyche that elevates the danger of deliberate self-inflicted death has filled the pages of many a thesis, written by people infinitely more schooled on the subject than I, but I worked in the sector long enough to learn the consensus viewpoint: a restricted capacity to deal with emotional distress.
During the opening scenes of Carnahan’s wintry psychological thriller, largely based in remote Alaskan wilderness, John Ottway (Liam Neeson) exits a bar full of brawlers and no-hopers and kneels on the snow outside, Neeson’s woody voice explaining that his character is an arsehole and so is everyone he knows.
Ottway, a sharpshooter whose job is to keep wolves, bears and other creatures away from riggers, retrieves a hunting rifle from his bag and places it in his mouth, poised to pull the trigger. He stops, interrupted, not by a mooshy cinematic contrivance like a visiting Good Samaritan or a sepia-toned flashback but the simple howl of a wolf in the distance.
Externalised in the tradition of Freudian dream analysis, which has long influenced the interpretation — and to an extent, the production — of film through its emphasis on symbols and motifs, this is Ottway’s un-confronted emotions calling him, beckoning for closure.
During the ensuing two hours, in a story based in icy no-man’s land, Carnahan uses a survival in the wilderness narrative as framing for the ultimate Men’s Group: a cathartic film about grappling with the age old question of what it means to be a man.
A plane crash strands a group of men including Ottway in the territory of hungry wolves. How Carnahan handles the crash sequence is an early flash of brilliance and one of many moments of breathless, throat-clogging intensity. His cameras are perched oh so close to Neeson, too damn close, hoveringly perilously near the gruff actor’s pulsating snout. No long shots or pans scan the faces of petrified passengers as their nightmare begins. This is a throbbingly intimate film.
When the lucky survivors (all blokes) take heed of each other and their predicament, a startling moment transpires when John takes the hand of a dying passenger and acts as an ad-hoc conduit to death, assuring him that the end of his life is near and inevitable, with a no-bullshit tenderness both hard and heart-melting. And at this point, you ain’t see nothing yet.
The Grey works as a riveting straight-up action/adventure thriller, if that’s what you’re after. It’s pulse pounding and uncomfortably intimate, prone to drain oxygen from the brain and breath from the lungs, a survival film that makes recent pics such as Into the Wild, Van Diemen’s Land and 127 Hours feel like stories about children getting lost in the supermarket.
Horrible creatures attack. People die. There are feats of physical strength and a tight bunch of excellent, twitchy performances. Yelling. Running. Anguish. Things that bite. Maim. Kill. Stop at nothing. But this searing, angry, explorative work assumes a far greater mantle, not just an early contender for best American film of the year but — in its construction and dismantling of the mythology of modern man — one of the most important Hollywood pictures of the millennium.
Fitting suicide prevention in the context of public discourse is tricky. There are countless on-the-ground programs built on the simple philosophy of encouraging men to talk, to provide forums for feelings. On the other hand there are dangers in over-exposing suicide. Journalists, for example, are encouraged not to report on method of death, or popular suicide locations, due to the abundance of evidence supporting copycat phenomenon. The Grey suggests a way of drawing issues into the open — in gruesome, unflinching detail — while shielding susceptible audiences through the mist of fiction.
The undealt with emotions that beckoned John to live, manifested in the bodies of dark beasts, are the same recondite entities stalking him down, eyes gleaming in the winter night, threatening to rip him and his crew into pools of broken bones and wads of flesh.
The Grey provides the perfect embodiment of Neeson’s skills as an actor. How he can nuance a blank sheet, carve heart from stone. During a scene around a campfire, Neeson, channeling the tough-as-nails man anyone would want around should they find themselves stranded in the wilderness, tells a companion that it’s OK to be afraid. It’s OK to feel fear and OK to articulate it. “I’m shit scared,” Ottway, the hardest man in the pack says, the kind of simple feat of recognition organisations like DIDSS spend weeks, months, years nudging men in the direction of achieving.
It’s mostly comprised of knuckle busting psychological energy, but The Grey finds fleeting respite from icy surroundings and hairychested interpersonal relations with representations of fatherhood and females. John’s memories of his dad holding him as a child flash in the same manner Carnahan splices in glimpses of women: sporadic, misty visual beats that coil around the narrative until their imagery takes on retina-burning meaning. Ottway’s emotionally distanced father had one psychological vent, poetry. He was proud enough to frame a four-liner and hang it on a wall, which John committed to memory. The poem allows John’s father to give his son the support in death he couldn’t give in life.
Remembering these moments, I was transported back to my childhood, into the room from which my favourite memory palace orbits. Growing up I suffered excruciating ear aches, constant indescribable pain blasting my head from the inside. One particularly bad evening the person who always comforted me, my mother, was out for the night and my emotionally reticent — reticent is too generous a word — father ventured in and out of my room, wet cloth in hand, confusion and compassion in his eyes. As time progressed and the pain worsened, I sensed my father growing more frustrated, not with me but with himself and his inability to communicate. He leaned over me, dabbed my forehead, and for the first and only time I felt him speak the things he could never articulate, heard three words he could never say. The throbbing hell inside my head could not dull the strength this small pocket of time gave me upon retrospect.
The Grey is about about man’s timeless struggle to deal with emotions, about journeying into the creepy wilderness of ourselves. It doesn’t underestimate how elusive or even how utterly pointless the search for redemption can be. It sensationalizes it, yes — there are bloodthirsty wolves and body-killing climate — but simplify it does not. Through ways best left for the viewer to experience, part of the film’s scope includes cutting open a wounding possibility: that the further traveled, the more obstacles passed and the more perilous the destination, carries with it the danger of a journey that might never have been headed in the right direction. Ottway’s travels are both a means and an end. And both, or neither. He traverses a grey world embedded with harrowing complexities.
The film’s title is not a description of the Alaskan landscape or the colour of the wolves.
The Grey’s Australian theatrical release date: February 16, 2012.
Note: do not watch the trailer for this film. There are images lifted right out of its electrifying finale.