2011's The Grey ends with Liam Neeson's John Ottway ready for a fight to the death with a wolf, but who wins and what does it really mean? Joe Carnahan's film tells the story of a group of oil-rig workers who survive a plane crash and find themselves stranded in the vast and unforgiving Alaskan wilderness. The men must figure out how to endure not only freezing temperatures but evade a pack of wolves that perceive the men's presence on their hunting grounds and proximity to their den as a threat.
Led by Ottway, a marksman who spends his days shooting wolves to protect the pipeline assemblers, the group sets out in search of civilization. Forced to grapple with the reality of their impending deaths as their numbers dwindle, the men consider their place in the universe and the legacies they'll leave behind.
The Grey's ending has proved divisive for its sharp cut-to-black and then a similarly inconclusive post-credits scene. However, that's all very much deliberate from Carnahan, who uses The Grey's ending to drive home its broader messages and themes. Here's what the ending means.
Who Wins The Grey's Final Fight?
The Grey's narrative leads to the inevitable standoff between Ottway and the Alpha wolf. The Grey was marketed as an action movie with tough-guy trope Neeson picking off the predators one by one. That's an understandable presumption on the part of the audience based on the trailer for The Grey, which includes flashes of a fight scene with Ottway and a wolf charging towards one another. The ending shows Ottway preparing for battle but abruptly cuts to the credits, leaving his fate unresolved. But Carnahan gives the audience some sense of closure in a post-credits scene, which shows the combatants in the aftermath of their confrontation. The Alpha lays on the ground breathing raspily, which harkens back to the dying wolf at the beginning of the film who Ottway caresses almost tenderly as the life drains from its body.
The final shot includes the back of Ottway's head lying against the wolf's abdomen - another intimate gesture. He's entirely still, so it's unclear if he's dead, dying, unconscious, or exhausted and simply contemplating what comes next. To understand the ambiguity of the scene, it's important to consider not just the prototypical man vs. beast conflict, but the movie's larger themes of spirituality, faith, and mankind's ongoing existential quest to uncover the meaning of life.
Religion And Faith In The Grey
Amidst the adrenaline-pumping scenes, there are moments of reflection in The Grey that reveal a deeper complexity to the characters who Ottway refers to as "men unfit for mankind." Talget (Dermot Mulroney) raises the point that surviving the crash was meant to be. They have been singled out for some unknown reason that he's trying to extrapolate. He and Henrick (Dallas Roberts) both believe they're been spared for some purpose: Henrick mentions God specifically while Talget appears to lean towards a vaguer higher power. They are driven by faith in something intangible and benevolent despite the brutality of their surroundings. Faith is a way to make sense of the senseless and having it implies there's an unspoken promise of a reward whether it's overcoming the obstacles standing in the way of their survival or finding peace and salvation in an afterlife.
Diaz (Frank Grillo) doesn't subscribe to the notion that everything happens for a reason, pointing out that the deaths of their friends indicate nothing more than dumb luck. Diaz believes that death in the simplest terms is the cessation of life, and all that comes after is a void. Ottway also derives no comfort from religious tenants although he wants to. "I really wish I could believe in that stuff. This is real, the cold. That's real. The air in my lungs. Those bastards out there in the dark stalking us. It's this world that I'm worried about ... not the next."
His beliefs have undoubtedly been shaped by his wife's death. He sees her throughout the film in what appear to be dreams or flashbacks, but there's an otherworldly aesthetic about them. After Henrick's death, Ottway calls on God to "do something." It's a futile gesture, and one derived from anger and grief not just about his current predicament but emotional baggage he's been carrying since he lost his wife. The silence is all the validation Ottway needs to confirm what he suspects all along. It is possible to interpret that Ottway stumbling directly into the wolves' den in The Grey is some kind of cosmic sign, forcing Ottway to face his mortality.
What The Other Characters' Deaths Mean
The Grey raises a question that can be found in every survival movie from The Revenant to I Am Legend to 127 Hours: what is it that drives the protagonists of these stories to keep going in the face of sometimes insurmountable odds? What is their sense of purpose? What gives their life meaning? The answer isn't thrust upon them. It's something or someone they've created for themselves. As Luke bleeds out in the immediate aftermath of the crash, Ottway doesn't delve into the usual platitude that Luke's going to make it to comfort him. Instead, he prepares Luke for the inevitable by allowing him to reflect on what's most important to him by asking "Who do you love?" Ottway urges Luke to let her "take you", which is open to interpretation, but it feels like Ottway is instructing Luke to let those memories guide him through the pain and into whatever comes next.
The deaths of Flannery (Joe Anderson) and Hernandez (Ben Hernandez Bray) not only emphasize the very real threat the wolves pose to the survivors' lives but also erases any sense of invulnerability the remaining men have after the crash. While neither of these characters has the opportunity to reflect on their mortality, their brutal endings catalyze the dialogue that comes later about the subject. Burke (Nonso Anozie) has visions of his sister before he succumbs to the elements. Is Burke just hallucinating, or is there a spiritual component to his visions of her?
After Talget reminisces about his daughter's laugh, Ottway offers the men some advice. "Those things from your life, whatever they might be, make you want that next minute more than the last." As Talget lay dying after his fall, like Luke and Burke, he's reunited with a loved one, indicating that Heaven or some equivalent is a unique construct. Diaz eventually gives up, explaining that nothing is waiting for him. It is perhaps the darkest moment of The Grey to see a man choose death over life because he can't conceive of there ever being something worth fighting for. There's also an eerie peaceful resignation to it. Unlike Diaz, Henrick struggles frantically to save himself and those images are in stark contrast to the utter stillness of his lifeless body forever bound to the rock that kills him.
Ottway's Dad's Poem Explained
The key, at least in part, to understanding Ottway's perseverance in The Grey, despite seemingly not having a reason to push forward, can be found in his father's poem. "Once more into the fray ... Into the last good fight I'll ever know ... Live and die on this day ... Live and die on this day ... " It's not coincidental that the poem bears a striking similarity to the words spoken by the King to his troops in Shakespeare's Henry V. The monarch uses the phrase "Once more unto the breach ... " as a battle cry. The soldiers must prevail or the whole of England will be under siege.
Throughout The Grey, Ottway urges the men to push forward or risk losing what they hold dear. There's an incongruity between the Ottway viewers see later in the film and him at the start of the film. A suicidal Ottway recalls the poem as he puts the gun in his mouth. The cries of wolves in the nearby mountains give him a reason to pause, but it feels as if the full impact of his father's words hit him. This day is hard, but who knows what tomorrow will bring. To die without purpose is a wasted death.
What The Grey's Ending Really Means
Ottway appears resigned to his fate in the moments before he realizes he's stumbled into the wolves' den in The Grey's ending. The irony that the one place he spends the film trying to avoid is where he ends up isn't lost on Ottway. The den represents death, and now he must face it head-on. Once again he sees his wife who tells him "Don't be afraid." She's on her deathbed, and her words indicate that he shouldn't be frightened for her. Earlier in The Grey, these words are spoken in an entirely different context since the audience doesn't know she's dead. When Ottway speaks of her leaving him, the assumption is she does so of her own volition. The dreamlike sequences are interpreted as a conversation he's created in his mind: a work of fiction where they are two characters engaged in a dialogue that helps him cope with his circumstances.
His mood shifts and his survival instinct kicks in. He straps liquor bottles from the plain to his hand and breaks them on a rock. In his other hand, he holds a knife. The two Alphas of The Grey face each other for the first time, sizing each other up. As Ottway recites his father's poem once more, there's a hint of a brief smile, but then the ferocity in his eyes matches that of his opponent. He moves to attack, and the screen goes black. Carnahan ultimately cut the final fight scene after a discussion with the film's editor, Roger Bart, who told the director "The emotional conclusion has already happened. If you now attempt to do this other thing [the wolf fight], I think it’s going to feel superfluous. It’s going to feel like you’re trying too hard."
What viewers are left with are two combatants whose fates may remain in the balance. The wolf appears mortally wounded, and when it comes to battles for control or survival, particularly among pack animals, there is one victor. There's no indication that Ottway is alive or dead, and if he managed to take down his foe does that guarantee he won't have to continue to fight challengers who step up to take the Alpha's place. Will they scatter or submit? Does it matter? Like his father's poem suggests, life is a series of never-ending battles. Death doesn't come in the literal sense but rather in the forms of always-evolving expectations and conquering feelings of loss, hopelessness, and loneliness. The real message of The Grey is how people choose to react. They can fight to the death or submit. The choice is theirs.