“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.”
One of the many drawbacks of our culture of 24-hour celebrity news is that it often becomes difficult to separate our perceptions of actors as people from the roles that they play. Whether deliberately or not, our ambient awareness of their personal lives always affects our appreciation of their performances. Brad Pitt’s passion for Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is undermined by our knowing that off-screen he’s shtupping Angelina Jolie. Mel Gibson remains a talented actor, director and storyteller, and yet, rightly or wrongly, his career has been tainted by the public face of his personal demons. So too does the tragic real-life death of Liam Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson following a skiing accident in Quebec a few years ago play subconsciously in our minds as we watch him as a broken, despondent and suicidal man in The Grey. But on this rare occasion, the tragedy of the real man only deepens the emotional impact of the story.
Liam Neeson’s career has seen him play a string of men of uncompromising integrity on both sides of the great moral divide. He has a fatherly screen presence that has led to his frequent casting as a mentor to the movie’s true hero – as Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, Godfrey of Ibelin in Kingdom of Heaven, Henri Ducard in Batman Begins, Priest Vallon in Gangs of New York, Zeus in the remake of Clash of the Titans. Having once turned down the role of James Bond, the actor who embodied Oskar Schindler has in recent years begun to reinvent himself as a big-screen badass in the mode of early Clint Eastwood, in movies like The A-Team, Taken and Unknown. The trailers for The Grey lead you to believe that it leans more toward the latter, that the big Irishman will be doing bare-knuckle battle this time not with white slavers or international assassins, but with those most vicious of Nature’s killers, wolves. Not so. There are wolf fights in the movie, but they are not its raison d’etre. Rather the story is more of a solemn meditation on the inevitability of death and our free will in deciding how we will meet it – as exemplified by the poem above.
In a rare, precious world teeming with life, humanity has, ironically, spent a great deal of its existence in an obsession with life’s end, questioning what comes beyond, and sadly, crafting inventive ways to hasten its arrival. There will be a moment in everyone’s time when he will speculate about his death, what form it will take, and whether he will go out in the archetypal blaze of glory or in quiet, frightened solitude – as though the meaning of the entirety of one’s life can be encapsulated in and defined by its final moment. Liam Neeson the man may have pondered this question before, but certainly has had greater cause to dwell upon it since the loss of his wife – much as for me, death was only the thing that happened to the bad guys in the movie, until my father passed away. I’m reminded of the scene at the end of Saving Private Ryan when the elder Ryan turns to his wife and pleads with her to assure him that he has lived a good life, that he has been worthy of the sacrifices made by others so he could go on. It’s important that we ask ourselves that question not as the end nears, but every day, even in the moments when death is the furthest from our thoughts. Are we the most of what we can be? And when the end does come, will the course of our individual history enable us to stand proudly against it, or will we let silence slip over us without resistance, in quiet shame and lingering regret?
The final line from the poem in The Grey is the most telling and the most interesting since it is misquoted on the movie’s poster. Where the poster asks “live or die on this day,” the true line is “live and die on this day,” suggesting that the moment we face our death is the moment, and the singular chance, to appreciate life in all its magnificence. Liam Neeson plays a man who is willing to let death take him as the movie begins, and by the end, is alone, forsaken by man and God, but, having come face to face with the depths of his soul, is now raging against the dying of the light. It is a cathartic journey to be admired, as we watch a man strip away the layers of doubt to discover the purest truth of who he really is, crystallizing at the moment the screen cuts to black – a perfect, if controversial ending to this tale – for we, the audience, cannot know another man in the way he knows himself. That question is up to each of us as individuals. That’s our choice, our challenge. To live and die on this day.