Interview: Director Joe Carnahan on God and spirituality in thriller “The Grey”

On the surface, “The Grey,” starring Liam Neeson, is a suspenseful and thrilling survival movie about a plane load of tough Alaskan men who crash in the wilderness.  Stalked by a pack of wild wolves, their journey towards civilization becomes an epic and harrowing battle between the human pack and the wolf pack.

However, the primal struggle takes on an almost literary quality, with both packs becoming metaphors for life, death, struggle, and spirituality. It’s like a Jack London story come to life, or perhaps a wilderness Flannery O’Connor, as the men find their beliefs about God and death, when challenged by the very real possibility of death, to be quite different than what they had believed before they boarded their doomed airplane.

I asked Joe Carnahan, the director and scriptwriter (it is an adaptation of a shorty story, “Ghost Walker” by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers), if he saw echoes of Jack London or O’Connor. “I think in terms of the overall spirituality or notion of the mystic and mysterious, yeah,” he said, “There’s larger themes in play in what would otherwise be a genre or thriller, action thriller category. Those things were working hand in hand. Something like ‘Deliverance’ – I’m a fan of the film, but I’m a bigger fan of the novel – and the theme of masculinity, what it means to be a man.”

“There is that brutality in O’Connor’s work. The hostility of the world around them.  And what is your shelter, if there is a shelter.”

In one scene, Neeson’s character –who earlier denied belief in God – challenges God, demanding help or answers. It was Neeson’s idea, Carnahan says, to pause in something very like prayer and carefully arrange objects in what seems to be a cross.

That’s not to say the movie serves up easy answers. In fact, Carnahan is perfectly comfortable with ambiguity: “I think if you’re an atheist, you look at the film and you say ‘He didn’t believe in God.’ If you’re a Christian: ‘100% he believed in God.’ I like that. I that like those things coexist. I’m a hell of a lot more interested to hear people talking to me about the film than for me to be telling them about the movie.”

He also intentionally set up the wolf pack and the human pack, with their respective Alpha males, to mirror each other. Human natures is “unpredictable and as hard to map as the animal world. …Nature is wildly unpredictable and we are certainly part of that.”

How does one make a movie that so overtly examines faith and God’s role in individual lives without being preachy? Carnahan, who was raised Catholic, said, “Be open minded and available to everything and not just saying it’s Jesus Christ or bust. So much of the world will do that. I find it troubling …Don’t be dogmatic.  I don’t see how it would be possible for us to make this movie if we were closed down or myopic in any form.”

So what is the movie about? “I think it’s the contradictions that exist in all of us at times in reference to God or to spirituality or to religion in general. There’s a duality of a guy calling on God: ‘Where are you when I need you?’ and then at the same time ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ I think that contradiction does exist in all of us, those of faith and those who profess to have no faith. I just thought it had to be something that was synonymous with the story itself and what we were trying to achieve and what we’re trying to tell. It wasn’t just a simplified view of life and death. Certainly, I ask myself those questions. What’s waiting for me? What will I be? My hope, my real hope, is that whatever you hold in your heart, whatever you truly believe, and you’ve put your faith in, that that’s what ‘s waiting for you. I think that’d be wonderful. You know what I mean? I think that would be the culmination of the life of the devout, or the believer.”

“The Grey” is rated R for bloody violence and opens Friday, January 27.

  • GGeorge Carver

    Great interview. Explains why the movie isn’t ambiguous, but rather confusing. This is action-genre director reaching for O’Connor and Jack London heights and falling short–into a grey and muddled snowbank.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thanks. We had a great talk.

      I didn’t find the movie confusing, but I did think it didn’t give the answers, more raised the questions.

      I liked it.

      Thanks for the comment and for letting me know what you thought of it.

  • David Walters

    Great article. You addressed the themes with Carnahan that really stood out to me in the movie. Themes that shocked me in their power, maybe because they were unexpected? Thankfully he cast Neeson who immediately anchored the movie from the opening voice over to something that felt substantial and mature unfolding onscreen. The death scenes carried real emotion and the actors were uniformly wonderful. The movie was not confusing in the least and the wolves quickly changed from B-movie horror tropes to stand-ins for death incarnate to test each man. Great surprise movie from the guy who brought us The A-Team!

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Nicely summed up, David. Maybe you should consider my job.

  • Vanessa Peterson

    Thanks for such a great interview Rebecca! You really nailed the blend of London and O’Connor- your put the words right in my mouth. The movie captured spiritual themes very well. I think the meaning leans heavily on the interpretation of the poem he quotes at the end. It could mean just live and die on this earth and that is what really matters, or we live and die on this earth, but we could live or die in the afterlife. I am a Christian and felt like the theme was more atheistic/humanist. By making a memorial of the wallets, I thought that he was elevating man and his life on earth. Thank you so much for your insightful interview!

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thanks, Vanessa. I would have thought it was atheistic, except the scene where he calls God out. It’s very overt. We’d all like God to answer immediately, but that would be poor storytelling, I think. The question I see is whether God answered or whether He was absent. I think you can read it either way, but I like that Carnahan raised the question.

  • observerph

    I just watched the film today. Amazing! The wolves were really scary…until that scene when the humans killed one of the wolves and then cooked and beheaded it. Then you get scared for the wolves. Nevertheless, for me, the film was not about the wolves at all.

    Overall it is a chillingly effective film that boldly raised issues about life, death, faith. It is ironic that the main character, played beautifully by Mr Liam Neeson, started out wanting to end his life but turns out he was the one who was left behind after all the survivors got killed/died in their search for a way to avoid getting attacked by the wolves. Instead of walking AWAY from the wolves’ den they in fact were walking TOWARDS it. In life, much as we would want to avoid it, we are all united by this one common destiny. And that is we are all walking, journeying, towards our death. This life is destined to end for all of us. Interestingly, we raise the same question as Neeson’s character – what then is his purpose for surviving all of them? Why are we still here? Why hasn’t God seen it fit to take us already like the others who came before us? And if we are still here for a higher purpose, then why doesn’t God help us to triumph in our trials, be victorious in our struggles? The answers did not seem forthcoming in the film. Well, until Neeson’s character brings out from the backpack the wallets of the men who died. This, to me, was the answer he was looking for. God shows him the photos tucked in the billfold…the faces of the loved ones that the men left behind. This, for me, gave him the courage to once again fight for his life. These people need to know about how the men who died, their last stories/memories about them. Then we see him prepare to battle it out with the leader of the pack. For someone who started out wanting to take his own life, now he is willing to give it up for others. Now that is perhaps the reason he was not able to do it in the first place. By God’s design He has other things in mind for him. His life had a purpose/meaning. We can’t give up in life until God says it is time; much as we want to keep it or take it or waste it. He has the final say….always.

    I did not see the last/post-credit scenes because I already went out of the cinema when the credits rolled, but if the wolf survived the man then, for me, it would mean that Neeson’s character already found the answer and has already fulfilled his purpose. And his purpose was in fact not that he must survive to accomplish what he thought God wanted him to do but that he would finally acknowledge in his heart that God loves him and his destiny is to wisely use his life, willingly give it back to the Maker, not take it bitterly as if it was his own, so that he can live a far better life – an eternal life w/ God where wolves cannot attack nor hurt him.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      I like your interpretation. I think it is indeed a meditation on mortality. Death comes to us all, so the question is not if we die but what we believe in as we go.

      I saw the post-credits snippet, but I totally didn’t get it. I have no idea what it was trying to tell us. Maybe someone can explain it to me.

      • http://mattmikalatos.com Matt Mikalatos

        It’s interesting, the movie seemed to make several references to breath and breathing, and of course to living and dying. “Today I live, today I die” and all that. It reminded me a lot of what some Christian (and probably other) mystics have said, that to breathe in is to live and to breathe out is to die, that we all live and die many times in a minute.

        I think in the end scene we see Neeson and his double (the other alpha male), both still living, both still dying… it was summing up the entire movie to say, life continues and death continues and we are all of us doing both, so long as we have breath.

        Anyway, that’s the way I took it.

        • Rebecca Cusey

          I like that take.

  • judi butler

    Well, this interview helped me a lot to confirm what I thought I had seen but was not quite sure. I think a lot of people walked out of the cinema last night thinking ‘what was that!’ and reading reviews by the general public quite a lot of people totally missed the point. There was a lot of resonance for me in the film as my husband had talked to me about his feelings when critically ill & having survived cancer (and the treatment) especially in the scene where the guy just props up on a log and decides this is the spot this is the moment, I’m choosing. Having read your interview and the comments posted above I feel like I just want to go back and see the film again. Thank you.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thank you for reading. It really was a meditation on mortality.


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