The Grey: Battling Depression and Self-Worth

Ottway suffering from his depression
Ottway suffering from his depression

The Grey is a 2012 survival/thriller starring Liam Neeson and directed by Joe Carnahan. The film is about an old man named Ottway, who is a lonely wolf hunter staying in a dreary Alaskan oil reserve. His main job is to defend a group of oil workers from packs of wolves if they try to approach them. When Ottway and the other oil workers fly off on a plane, it soon crashes and now they are stuck in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. Ottway is the only one who can lead the men to safety as they must survive the insufferable winter conditions, as well avoiding savage wolves as best as possible. The film was released in January which is usually Hollywood’s dumping ground for bad movies, but it stood out from the rest. The trailers and ads for The Grey were misleading, being advertised as an action/thriller with Liam Nesson fighting wolves with his bare hands. What the audience got instead was a survival/thriller, but with a heavy emphasis on drama that insightfully depicts themes of depression and self-worth.

The film does not just have depression as the context; the film itself physically embodies what it feels like to be depressed. The film evokes feelings of sadness, hopelessness and constant loneliness even around others. These are common symptoms usually seen in people with depression and it can mentally cripple a person if not treated. Someone with depression can feel like his or her world is getting bleaker every day, feeling like they do not belong anywhere in society. In the film, Ottway does show signs of depression, but in other cases his depression is used symbolically in the movie. There are couple examples of this.

Ottway’s Character Development

The beginning of the film establishes Ottway’s character ark. The film starts with Ottway talking to the audience, describing the small reserve he’s working at as a place full of drunks and scumbags. While Ottway is sitting in a bar by himself, he thinks about being under some bed sheets with a beautiful woman. The name of this women is never mentioned aswell as if she was Ottway’s wife, girlfriend, or just a women he desperately loved. All that the audience needs to know is he loved this women with all his might and for some reason she is not in his life anymore. One day Ottway is doing his shift when he shoots down a wolf running at three men. He puts his hand on the wolf ‘s stomach feeling the last remaining breaths of this poor creature. He sees his job as immoral, being paid to kill animals for men he cares little for. Without his love by his side, Ottway’s depression gets to him and soon he starts writing a suicide note; it is most likely no one will read it and no one will miss him. In the note he writes this poem: “Once more into the fray/ Into the last good fight I will ever know/ Live and die on this day/Live and die on this day.” This is foreshadowing for later in the film, since later on he will face another scenario involving death. He soon puts his mouth on the trigger of his own sniper rifle and nearly ends his life. Before he pulls the trigger, he hears the ominous howls from a pack of wolves in the forest, and snaps out of taking his own life. The wolves remind Ottway that he has an obligation to the men to protect them from the vicious packs of wolves, even if it is a thankless and immoral job.

Ottway fantasizing about being reunited with his wife
Ottway fantasizing about being reunited with his wife

Ottway’s look on life is very bleak, but all of that is about to change when he boards the plane. Ottway isolates himself from the other men on the plane, which is a symptom usually seen when someone is depressed. The plane does eventually crash in an all too realistic way, as the audience watches Ottway hanging upside down from roofless plane. Ottway gazes at the destroyed plane, in which many of the men died in the plan. So he tries his best to save any man he can except for one man, who is rapidly bleeding to death. Much like the wolf he put down, Ottway tells the dying man it is over as he watches the man die, knowing that there is nothing he could have done. Ottway and the other 6 remaining men realize they need to leave the crash site, or else they will either freeze to death, or the wolves with attack them. The men are like helpless children when they are stuck in the middle of the frozen alaskan wilderness. Ottway sees this as a chance to make a difference in his empty life and becomes the leader of the group, using his useful survival skills to lead the men to safety.Before they start to head out, Ottway tells the men to collect the dead men wallets, not to rob them, but so they will not be forgotten. It is commonly said that men carry their whole lives in their wallets, but its literal in this case; a man’s whole identity and life stuffed in their pants pocket which is a sad, but realistically true.

One night when building a camp fire,Ottway explains how wolves are not so different form humans because they can strategize how they are going to kill their victims, and they understand the concept of revenge. He also talks about the leader called an alpha wolf, who leads over the other wolves. Ottway and the alpha are in a sense the same because they both leaders who would do anything to save their group, as the group would be lost without them. The film draws comparisons between the wolves and the other men. For example: sounds can be heard of a normal wolf challenging the alpha wolf, but the alpha wolf kills the normal wolf for its traitorous actions. Right after they hear that, one man flips out at Ottway for no apparent reason and starts challenging him to a fight, but Ottway takes him down without breaking a sweat. Throughout out the journey, he is starting to get along with the other men, starting to know a bit more about them. He goes so far as to share the story about where the poem he recited at the beginning of the film came from. It was an untitled poem his father wrote when Ottway was just a young boy. Ottway still does not know the full meaning of the poem, but he can grasp that it deals with death. He even read this poem at his father’s funeral. Now Ottway is not isolating himself anymore and is overcoming his depression.

Unfortunately, even with Ottway’s extensive survival skills, each man gets killed one by one until he is the only one left. Ottway feels tremendous guilt for the men’s death and now he has no reason to continue forth on his journey. Ottway tries to carry on in his journey, but sees no point to it and stops dead in this tracks. Since it is unlikely that anyone will find him, he starts to stack the wallets of the fallen men on top of each other. He sees pictures of all the men’s family and feels guilty that even with his knowledge of the wilderness, he could not save the men. It hits him like a ton of bricks that he has failed his mission.

After that, he is surrounded by wolves and is confronted by the alpha wolf. During this he thinks about wife , but the audience soon realizes she was on her death bed when she was lying in a hospital room. Through out the film, Ottway remembers his wife saying,”don’t be afraid”, and not understanding what she meant. Now as he stares death straight in the eye, he understands what she meant by that, which is to be accepting of death. Ottway tapes a knife and broken bottles to his own hands, ready to take down this beast. It is fitting how Ottway’s job was to shoot down wolves from attacking men and now he has to take down the ultimate wolf to avenge all of fallen comrades. In his last words, he recites his father’s poem one last time, as he finally understands what it means: “Once more into the fray/ Into the last good fight i’ll will ever know/ Live and die on this day/ Live and die on this day.” He understands that the poem does not express about how someone will die, but what he or she will stand for when their time comes.

When looking at Ottway’s character ark, the theme of The Grey seems to be the acceptance of death. Throughout the film, Ottway has never gotten over his wife’s passing. The one women that showed him any kind of love is gone and he is so depressed to the point that he attempts suicide just to be reunited with her. He also has a hard time accepting the deaths of the men on their journey. Even though there was likely a chance they would not survive, Ottway still puts blame on himself for their deaths. The families will never get to see their fathers or sons again, which only adds to Ottway’s grief. But he soon understands that he put to much grief on himself for the lives of others. While the deaths of his wife and the other men is hard to cope with for different reasons, he soon sees that everyone can and will die eventually and theres no way from stoping it.

Let us not forget the after credit scene, in which it is just 5 seconds of Ottway resting his head on the alpha wolf’s stomach as it breaths its last breath. Ottway is breathing heavily, hinting that either he has won the fight with the alpha, or that he died trying. If he lives, he no longer needs to worry about death of others. This is because the Alpha wolf is the embodiment of death and now that Ottway has conquered the beast, he can how move on with his life, not worrying death looming over him. This is also a call back to the scene when Ottway feels the heart beat of the dying wolf. Interesting fact to note is the director Joe Carnahan wanted the character of Ottway to be a bit younger, about the age of 35. The reason he picked Liam Neeson is because he thought it was better casting, but more importantly it was because Lim Neeson actually lost his wife in real life. Every emotion of grief that Liam gives is real, perfectly capturing a man who has lost everything and his having trouble with coping with it.

The Other Men

Ottway leading the other men through the cold Alaskan wilderness
Ottway leading the other men through the cold Alaskan wilderness

The 6 remaining oil workers are what holds Ottway together as a character. Ottway has amazing skills in severing the wilderness, but without anyone to protect at all cost, his knowledge is useless. It could be argued that the men are just figures of Ottway’s imagination, as a way to cope with his biter loneliness. Each character gets killed either by the wolves, or the just by just trying to survive thought the brutal wilderness environment. The first man to get killed of is Hernandez by being torn apart by a wolf, alerting the men about the wolves in the area. He was portrayed as being a little childish, play a Nintendo DS even though he should be worrying trying to stay alive it the cold alaskan wilderness. The next charter to be hunted and killed by the wolves is Flattery. He was the least likable of the group, being a degenerate prick on the plane, and being dimwitted. The next character named Burke was not torn apart by wolves, but instead froze to death during the night. Before this scene, Burke was seeing hallucinations of his dead sister which symbolize that he’s going towards a heavenly light. Burke came off as harmless man who really keeps to himself, so it’s fitting that he was killed off in a less painful way. When the group tries to get over a huge gorge, another man named Talent falls face first into a tree and comes tumbling town the tree. In his final moment, Talent images his young daughter wiping her long hair across his face, when really a pack of wolves are tearing him limb from limb.

The character Diaz is shown early in the film and is the second most important character in the film asides from Ottway. Diaz is not a redeemable character; in fact he’s an obnoxious jerk with little regards for anyone but himself. He often butts heads with Ottway and the other men because of his bloated ego. The more he starts interacting with the group, the more he starts mellowing out and has the most peaceful implied death in the film. When the 3 remaining men try to follow a river to hopefully find help, Diaz realizes that his leg injury is too severe to continue and feels he’s holding back the other two. Diaz accepts his fate and decides to wait there on a log. Ottway and the other man named Henrick try to plead with Diaz to reconsider this, but Diaz knows even if they do reach help, there is no life waiting for him besides being a belligerent drunk. Before Ottway and Henrick leave Diaz to presumably die alone, they all tell each other their first names. Until this point in the film, the characters are only addressed by their last names and by leaning of their first names this establishes Ottway has learned more about these men than he ever would before. By doing this, Ottway and Diaz realize that both their names are John. This show that Ottway sees a little bit of himself in Diaz because they’re both lonely men who have no life waiting for them back home. By the end of the film, Ottway decides to stand up for once and to fight for his last moment of life, unlike Diaz who just gives up and accepts his fate. We never know if Diaz actually dies, or not, but he is still never seen again.

The last character is Henrick and Only him and Ottway remain on their impossible journey. Sadly, after being chased by wolves, Henrick falls into the river and drowns. Henrick’s leg was caught between two rocks and Ottway was so close to saving him, but it was too late. Ottway is saddened and outraged that he couldn’t save any of the men from their demises. He looks up into the bleak grey sky and starts swearing at God, saying “show me something that’s real.” He waits for some sort of a response, or sign until he gives up and whispers “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.” Before the men left on the plane crash site, Henrick asks God to just watch over them on their journey establishing he was the most hopeful of the group. It seems that God was never really on his side. The men being killed of one by one is a metaphor for depression because when someone suffers from depression, it seems like people disappear from their lives for various reasons until they feel completely alone. Ottway now has no reason to make it back home, no men to give him confidence and now even God himself has seemed to abandon him. Ottway is completely alone.

Ottway looking at god for a sign of hope
Ottway looking at god for a sign of hope

Color Symbolism

Color is a character in it of itself because it demonstrates emotions and themes in the film without just telling the audience straight out. The three important colors to focus on is gray, white and black.

The color gray is probably the most important color in the film, hence the title. It’s important to not overlook the importance of the title. Why is the film called The Grey because there is no character with Grey in their name, neither is the color ever mentioned in the whole film? The title seems to be referring to the color gray itself. In movies and in other art forms, the color gray is used to evoke sorrow, dread, bitterness and hopelessness for example: storm clouds moving over a town. At the same time, gray can be interpreted as wise and knowledgeable which is usually used for older characters to establish they have a backstory, even if we just met the character. Ottway fits both these meanings of the color gray because his sorrow can be felt throughout the film, but at the same time he is the most qualified man the lead the other men to safety later in the story. To further establish this, Ottway is seen wearing a gray winter hat thought the movie. The color grays is also described as the color between black and white. This could be interpreted as black meaning hell and white meaning heaven, which means grey would be purgatory. This representation of purgatory will be disused further on.

The color white is used to establish heaven like afterlife ,or is used to stand out from the rest of the mercy colors. In the bar, Ottway is wearing a white coat while everyone else is wearing grimier colors. This symbolizes that he does not associate with the men and has distanced himself from them entirely. While in the bar, he thinks about his deceased wife. This subtly establishes that his wife has died because one she’s only seen in Ottway’s dreams and secondly the bright bed sheets symbolize she has died and ascended into heaven. And of corse the snow coverer wilderness is symbolize how the men are lost and frightened in the unfamiliar territory they are trapped in.

The color black is use in the film to establish death and what waits beyond death. The figurative examples of death in the film are the wolves because they are supposed to be a metaphor for the grim reaper. The men are constantly trying to avoid wolves, but soon seems clear that it is inevitable they will be snatched up eventually, just like the grim reaper himself. To further establish this point.

The Alpha wolf symbolizes death at the end of the film
The Alpha wolf symbolizes death at the end of the film


As addressed in the start of this article, the film could be interpreted that the men are in purgatory. For those who don’t know, purgatory can be described as an realm between heaven and hell, where souls that are both equally good and sinful and are judged, to see where they will spend their eternal rest. Ottway and the other men could actually have died during the plane crash, but now are in purgatory which is interpreted as the cold Alaskan wilderness. Before Ottway woke up from the plane crash, he visualized him sitting in bed with his deceased wife in heavenly white sheets. As each of the men gets picked off one by one, it could be interpreted as them being judged by their sins, to see if the are worthy enough to be accepted into heaven, or to be cast into the pits of hell. This is why there is no sign of God because they’re in purgatory, waiting to be judged. The reason the wilderness seems like purgatory is because it’s completely abandoned and it seems never ending which is why help is never found. While the film taking place in purgatory is just a theory, the fact the film discusses death and the association with the color gray makes it more than just a coincidence.

In the end Ottway tries to fight the alpha wolf while at the same time knowing he will not make it out alive and accepts it. The reason he recites his father’s poem is because the meaning of the poem is that everyone has to die at some point, but it is what kind of a life someone lived that will determined their outcome. Ottway was going to commit suicide in the beginning of the film which can be considered a sin, possibly condemning to hell for his actions. Instead he decides to go on this journey that shows his bravery and self-sacrifice, insuring that he will ascend into heaven and be reunited with his wife.

In conclusion, on the outside The Grey may be a very dour film to watch and it may have a defeatist outlook at life in some parts. On the inside though, it’s a deep character study of a man struggling to keep moving on in life. The film never says Ottway is depressed, but instead uses visual storytelling and it’s somber soundtrack to evoke emotions of sorrow to the audience. That’s why The Grey is more that just your average survival/thriller.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
I'm majoring in Graphic Design at Fitchburg State University. My favorite topics to talk about are movies, animation and comics.

Want to write about Film or other art forms?

Create writer account


  1. there’s not another male character in hollywood that could perfectly convey the type of pain that Liam Neeson’s character is suffering from. he makes a great action character because of his menacing size and threatening voice. at the same time, he can play a character that you could emotionally connect with. by far, he is the most versatile actor in hollywood.

  2. I have to say I enjoyed Taken but his acting is quite wooden to be honest. He lacks depth and his voice comes over monosyllabic. Just saying

  3. Jeckle Bunker

    I thought it was a horrible pastiche of better movies: Alive, Fearless, The Edge, Death Hunt and Sometimes a Great Notion.(Some of these are no great shakes, but seem like Citizen Kane compared to this movie.)

  4. If it weren’t for Liam Neeson’s performance, the film would be a total failure.

  5. The twist near the end was obvious from the very start.

  6. Lucius Styles

    Love this film! When I went to see this film, I did not know exactly what I was going to get. I ended up getting a chilling tale!

  7. This is one of the my favorite films that concerns itself with such depth in a character and how his hardest obstacles in the film are internal, even when faced with traversing the impossible Alaskan wasteland. I enjoyed reading about your analysis of his character, and I think that this film is a rare treat that can serve to entertain on two levels: a survivalist tale that is ultimately interesting, and more importantly, a character’s internal journey though an external environment.

  8. Thoroughly enjoyed this movie. Perfect casting for Neeson!

  9. Once upon a time Liam Neeson only played priests and sombre leaders. Today he has transformed himself into a somewhat credible action star!

  10. ciaraaa

    The only problem I had with this film was the slightly shonky CGI Wolves.

  11. Great analysis! I particularly liked your discussion on color symbolism. Well done!

    • Aaron Hatch

      Thank you very much. I want to do more movie analysis’s in the future, so thanks for boosting up my confidence.

  12. We needed more of a payoff for the final scene, which could have been added and still ended in similar fashion. Shame.

  13. Torrence

    Brilliant Movie.

  14. Joslyn Robinson

    A great analysis of depression and how film uses imagery to tell an emotional story as well as enhance conflict. I also got that Ottway identifies with the wolves as being survivalists from societal rejection. He feels socially rejected and an outcast, which is part of depression, too.
    Thanks, the article was well organized and presented.

  15. Aaron Hatch

    Thank you very much.

  16. MiBurris

    I finally got round to seeing this last night after managing to avoid pretty much everything about it on its release. Better than I expected.

  17. This was an excellent read for me. I got the chills while reading this, just thinking back on the movie and remembering its darkness and sorrow. When i first saw the film I didn’t exactly know how to interpret it, and this puts a lot into perspective. Great analysis, and great job.

  18. Another great use of color is in Kerry Marshall’s black painting.

  19. I want to thank you for writing this. It was a brilliant read and helped me with my film analysis paper and you gave me a whole new appreciation for the grey. I feel as if I am a better writer because of you.

  20. William

    Brilliant overview. The first time I saw the movie I understood that it had a deeper meaning. This article articulates that deeper meaning – it was not a “survival” drama.

  21. That was spot on, a great read truly, but I think that may also be the depiction of a realist’s point of view too, not necessarily depressed but damn good writing in all.

  22. Incredible analysis. As a movie fan I love understanding the deeper meaning in movies. I don’t always pick up on everything, but i enjoy going back, doing research to find out more. This was a great read! Well done

  23. I just watch this film last night and felt a uncomfortable feeling about it,
    But I didn’t know why, I have been in a dark place and I don’t know how I managed to get out of it, I know it hit a nerve.

    I came across this article and it made so much sense it all came together,


  24. I had a terrible dream about not being able to find my mother after watching this film. It was pitch black and I was desperate and frightened. I searched and searched for her but I could not find her no matter had hard I tried. I awoke from the dream Inconsolable. I knew there was no hope of ever finding her because she was already dead. You see, she died a year and half ago. So waking up from a bad dream gave me no relief at all. Because the reality was far worse than my bad dream. I had no hope. After reading the Artifice’s piece on The Grey, I realize the depression in the film clicked with my subconscious and the fact that I’m still struggling with her loss. I am thankful for the insight From this article (albeit the pain I experienced after watching the film). It helps to know why I dreamed what I did. The understanding makes the hurt not so all encompassing.

  25. It does evoke a sense of pursuing a lost cause.

  26. Well written, provocative and very insightful. Thank you from a Psychology Undergraduate.

  27. Thanks for this analysis. When I first watched this movie I was just a kid in school, and took it at face value. As an adult, I suffer from clinical depression and can relate to the character and analysis. The movie and even this overview brought me to tears.

  28. Spaceman

    Awesome break down of the deep underlying element of the movie.

  29. Anan Sharfaraz

    Amazingly explained!!! Could not have been any better…Some how i can relate to this. Many many thanks… God bless you.

Leave a Reply