I continue to be haunted by Joe Carnahan’s gruelling death-adventure The Grey. Imagery from its harsh, white-out trek into oblivion and the overall impression of grim fatalism return to me very often. Survival-flick, horror story, sobering treatise of the acceptance of mortality - it is all of these things, and more … and although resolutely depressing and upsetting, it is a film of remarkable power and humanity, and one that illustrates the deconstruction of the macho/heroic ideal whilst, at the same time, celebrating the do-or-die determination of certain individuals not to go down without a fight. It is also, very clearly, a modern fable and not something to be taken as a realistic approach to such a nightmarish scenario.
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.
Throughout the course of this review for Marc Streitenfeld’s score, there will be multitudes of spoilers. So be warned … here there be wolves.
Marc Streitenfeld scored Robin Hood for Ridley Scott, and it was a nifty, though still generic period-action piece that didn’t especially linger in the mind and hardly established him as composer to look out for. He had even worked in the music department for Hans Zimmer on Scott’s Gladiator, Matchstick Men, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, Body of Lies, American Gangster and Hannibal. Although he was primarily providing temp-tracks and then just flipping switches for Zimmer, there is obviously a relationship with the director that is solid and mutually rewarding as, coming up we have his rather large undertaking for Scott’s long-awaited return to the Alien universe with Prometheus which, I feel certain will be his most ambitious project to date, even if Scott has found that some additional material courtesy of Harry Gregson-Williams (another Zimmer protégé) was necessary. It should be noted that as good a filmmaker as Scott is, he is no respecter of his composers, having treated several very shabbily in the past, and performed last-minute changes and regurgitations of former glories despite their best and committed efforts. Here, though, what we have is all Steitenfeld and, for my money, it shows that the composer has made considerable improvement in terms of style and individuality.
At first, however, when I saw that Steitenfeld’s name was attached to The Grey, I was initially less than enthused. His style of orchestral swabbing over synth-beds, and mixing-desk button-pushing sang out of composing the easy-way. But he actually employs a proper instrumental ensemble, albeit a limited one, and that is very definitely a step in the right direction. He also clearly watched Carnahan’s film as well as he totally gets the spiritual and emotional plight of the beleaguered Alaskan drill-men who wind-up stranded in the middle of frozen wolf territory, with virtually no chance of survival after a horrific plane-crash dumps them far from civilisation and safety.
This is a hugely simple score in terms of construction, theme and presentation. Although there is action and horror, the music doesn’t really opt to lend voice to such elements in any traditionally visceral manner. Carnahan was going for the psychological ramifications of the situation, the emotional dilemmas and the existential effects that the dwindling band of doomed survivors, and essentially Liam Neeson’s sniper, Ottway, were experiencing. Thus, we don’t get chase themes or dark suspense in the accepted sense. Galvanising percussive lurches and synth-fed wallops force the wolf attacks upon us, literally clawing at us with adrenalized impulse-rushes that occur without rhyme or melody. Sudden, nerve-shredding gut-punches that paralyse the senses. These come with fury, but the bulk of the score is delicate, lonely, forlorn and morose. Piano, strings, violin, bass and cello create lyrical laments that are cyclic and profound and unforgettable. This is not an easy score to enjoy, or to love. Yet, at the same time, it perfectly captures the mood of wilderness fear and palpable physical dread, as well as finding a musical frame of reference for the acceptance of one’s fate and the sheer hopelessness of some situations.
All sounds very dark and doom-laden, doesn’t it?
And, yes, this is precisely what Joe Carnahan wanted and exactly what Mark Streitenfeld delivered.
But the essential thing to remember is that he is able to find beauty in despair, and emotional poignancy in the knowledge of annihilation, and that is not an easy task.
He begins and ends his score with its most emphatic and haunting statements. The theme for Ottway is the theme for film itself, a deeply melancholic dirge for the utter collapse of faith combined with the desperate longing for a life since passed. Recollection and loneliness sit beside one another throughout Writing the Letter and Suicide. The first track features a plaintiff, yearning two-note plea from strings that ascends and descends in earnest. This is backed by ominously deep slashes from the cello and bass. This stark theme is very reminiscent of Van Cleave’s lonely motif for the stranded Earthman in the classic SF movie, Robinson Crusoe On Mars, just a little bit slower. It serves the same sort of purpose too – a prophetic foreshadowing of grim times to come, when the only warmth available will be the memories that Ottway clings to. The Alaskan sniper writes a final letter, goes for a final drink in the refinery bar and then goes outside to place his rifle barrel in his mouth. Reflecting this Suicide bid – a scene that should place audience members under no illusion that this is a story with a happy ending – Streitenfeld writes the most memorable and haunting theme for the movie. The cello mourns through a fugue-like texture, and then, with slow strings evoking the vast and unforgiving nature of the wilderness, delicate strings are plucked in a simple, tragic motif. As one character later says before throwing the towel in, “I’m done,” the motif seems to suggest the same. It is a last moment gathering of thoughts, a mind and a heart combined with one single purpose. Only the distant howling of a wolf interrupts Ottway before squeezing the trigger, a significant omen. This theme will be revisited again when Ottway tells his companions of his father and of the poem that he wrote, the poem that gives him the strength to carry on (this variation of the theme is not present on the album), when a fellow survivor confronts him about his attempted suicide, once more, with heartbreaking intensity, during the finale of the film (Track 15) and then, finally, over the end credits (Track 16).
In some ways, this two-note ascending/descending phrase can even be interpreted as a sort of impressionistic howling, itself, as though the wolves’ calling is distant and carried down from the mountains on the wind. With this in mind, it links Ottway to his destiny at a fundamental level – man and wolf combined in one relentless, unwinnable struggle.
The score as heard on this album does not strictly follow the film’s chronology, and a couple of elements have been omitted, such as the Alpha-wolf coming in to eyeball the men at the stricken forest camp, and the tense sequence when Hendrick (Dallas Roberts) makes a phenomenal leap of faith across a chasm. But then Streitenfeld’s more ambient layers can appear in various fits and starts throughout the movie, sometimes repeated, often appearing in subtly altered guises, and occasionally amounting to little more than strangled effects, stingers and tonal sustains. Electronics aid the sound of strained breathing, the sensation of the unyielding wind. The expressive use of two bass saxophones provides a voice and character to the wolves, played so low and grindingly they resemble the slow, sinister growling of the animals, especially the formidable Alpha-male. The ensemble is very small, very intimate, the production achingly clear and close. With the film relying very heavily upon a freakishly impressive sound design – I’ve never heard directional wind effects so loud and realistic – Streitenfeld actually goes for the opposite end of the spectrum. Apart from the savage stingers for the wolf-attacks, his score is introspective and gentle, a reflection of the internal struggle each of the survivors faces.
In You Are Gonna Die, the crash has happened and Ottway, who appears to have some certain knowledge of slow, conscious death, eases a mortally wounded man to the afterlife. A solo violin streaks tears across the heavens against the whimsical heartbeat of a plucked bass. More strings come in to engulf the terrible moment as the track plays out. Surprisingly, the scene in the film plays out with hardly any musical accompaniment at all, and the cue is actually utilised elsewhere. Likewise the next track, Walking, which figures much later in the film. Here, we have dissonance and threatening layers of grinding ambience. Solo violin in high register, ethnic shakers and percussion and synth provide an atmospheric effect of space and environment.
The use of two bass saxophones is brought forcefully to bear in Eyes Glowing. In this terrifying sequence, the men are huddled beside a fire outside the wreckage of the plane when Ottway senses something approaching in the surrounding darkness. Clutching a firebrand he moves off to investigate, knowing all the while who has come to pay them a visit, having already had a chunk wrenched from his leg by the lupine inhabitants of the territory. As the other men join him in a defensive line, the green glowing eyes of a wolf pierce the night in front of them. Soon, these eyes are joined by other glowing embers of feral green as the pack surveys its prey and, under the strict guidance of Ottway, the men stand their ground and stare right back. Streintenfeld uses suspended cymbals, skittish strings, rustlings of brass and percussion and wind-swept whirls of dissonance to create the tense stand-off. Swift flurries on drums keep us on our toes, edgy bow-slashes on cello continually unhinge. The set-piece is creepy as hell, and the track more than does it justice.
More nerve-fraying, frost-bitten dissonance engulfs us The Morning After, as Ottway discovers the body of one of the men posted as a sentry, slain and shredded by the wolves during the night. “They weren’t eating him. They were killing him.” Rub-rods and shivering cymbals ice the blood, squirreling strings act like cattle-prods urging us to look at the ghastly remains. The music conveys the horror and the escalating realisation that the stakes have been raised even higher. Streitenfeld is good at this – anxious, unnerving passages of colliding phrases enmeshed into a paranoid whole. He switches tactics next in Collecting Wallets. Ottway insists that they gather up the wallets from the littered corpses of the crash for the victims’ families, and Streitenfeld creates a canopy of despair for long-line strings and shell-shocked cello as the men go about their grim task.
Ottway has repeated visions of his wife lying in bed. Against soothing, tender strings and piano, he comes to her and she reassures him in Wife Memory. There is no escaping the fatalism that underscores this painful vision, no surprises when we get the final reveal. The sound of those fragile strings being gently plucked is heard again in Life And Death as the men say a few words for those who didn’t make it out of the crash, and it is possibly here that I am most reminded of the influence of Hans Zimmer, and not in the percussive droning and dense layers that you might expect to find such familiarity. This recalls the ethnic spiritualism of combat downtime and heartfelt reminiscence heard in the likes of Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and then in Robin Hood, somehow Latin-infused and as delicate as the strands of a web. Streitenfeld makes this work supremely well. It is cold and lonely and enormously evocative of a blighted ego that has been flung far out from of its comfort zone.
After persuading the survivors that it would be better to move off from the crash-site and make for the wooded areas in the distance, Ottway leads them in a line through the driving snow. The annoying Flannery (Mackenzie Crook-alike Joe Anderson) falls behind, struggling through the thick blanket of white. Suddenly, two wolves converge upon him from out the grey murk, dragging him down and, when joined by a third, savage him before the rest of the men can get there in time. The track Lagging Behind is violent and full of physical anguish. Hammered keys on a prepared piano, the gruesome tectonic-shift of the sax, shrill strings and ominous woods compete with mean-spirited brass. Listen for the frenzied, almost satanic clawing of the bass at the end of the cue.
In Running From Wolves, the men are forced to charge through thick snow in an attempt to make it to the tree-line, and form a defensive position from the pack that is converging on them from two sides, flanking them. With harsh, bone-rattling dissonance, sizzling cymbals, convulsively fitting strings and brass belches, Streitenfeld actually recalls the unpredictable violence of Bernhard Herrmann, particularly the maestro’s depiction of some of the more monstrous encounters in Jason and the Argonauts and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. The track is short and turbulent, frightening and exhausting. It is limited in scope compared to Herrmann’s wild symphonics, but the effect is just as disorientating and debilitating.
After a series of taunting terrors and animalistic tit-for-tat, the group, now minus another member, who has succumbed to hypothermia, find themselves at the edge of a high cliff. Ottway surmises that the only way they have getting down is by attaching an improvised rope to the trees on the opposite side, shinning across and then scaling down the tall trees. It’s a highly implausible tactic, but an exciting one. Sadly, it leads to the death of another man whose body crashes horribly down through the trees and lands at the paws of the eager pack of wolves who obviously knew a quicker way down. The victim had spoken of his long-haired daughter and her insane giggle, and now, just before he dies, the Daughter Appears beside him to help ease him over to the other side. It is a moment of high and moving spirituality – Ottway has told each person to cling to something that they love and to keep it in their minds for it will give them the strength to carry on and, if the worst happens, help them to greet death. To adhere to his desperate commitment to personal faith, strings echo, a harp glimmers and woodwinds blow into the Alaskan wind.
Three men carry on, but soon, via a horrible drowning and an incredible sequence when Frank Grillo’s macho ex-con, Diaz, opts to simply sit by a river and look at the snow-capped view until he draws his last breath, there is only one left alive in the wilderness. In Last Walk, we hear the opening Crusoe-like lament for solo violin, this time with added synth – a sort of panting that echoes repetitively to signify the exhaustion that Ottway, who is now alone and coming to the end of his endurance. The piece slows down, the solo violin joined by cello and bass, and then bows out with just the violin and then, finally, the repetitive panting. Neatly, this cue also played over the last “limping” walk of Diaz a little earlier, further linking the two men who were once at loggerheads.
The sniper cannot go any further. He sags to his knees and then slowly, methodically, reverently, takes out all the wallets collected from the fallen men. Gently, he looks upon the pictures of his comrades inside them, their smiles and the children they hold in their arms, and he builds a small Memorial out of them, soothingly patting each one as he piles them together. This is a tremendously sobering scene and one that is quite awkward to watch, the coldness and the abject despair hitting home like the return trip from the last visit to a hospital. Ottway knows that his actions have led to the deaths of all the others, but he also knows that he gave them all their best shot at survival. At last, he pulls from his pocket the letter he had written at the start, the tatters of his life. The music is appropriately dirge-like and bleak, commencing with woodwinds and then curling inwards with long-line strings, chronicling the terrible fact that Ottway’s bitter dearth of faith has found succour in the desperation of consigning so many lost souls to oblivion. This mirrors the earlier suicide scene, with Ottway at the brink of giving up. At least it will be peaceful to lie down in the cold and go to sleep …
But Fate has dogged him every step of the way.
As Ottway realises that his bloody trek has led him directly into the heart of the wolf-den, and that his hunters are now surrounding him, Streitenfeld returns to the main piano theme, the score turning full circle in the frozen forest. A gentle pulse echoes in the background, like the slow surge of blood in the man’s temples. The violin carves out his growing acceptance of a fate he probably knew all along that he couldn’t outwit. With memories of his father and his wife and the words of his father’s four-line poem spurring him on, Ottway tapes Diaz’s GPS watch and miniature liquor bottles to one hand and his knife to the other. To the accompaniment of grinding, low bass saxophone the Alpha male slowly advances towards the intruder. The gentle motif grows in resonance and poignancy, reaching the closest point that this score will ever come to heroism as Ottway rises to his feet one last time and prepares to charge once more into the fray, and the last good fight he’ll ever know. Like the great final track, Song for Bob, in the score for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, this has a gentle, rhythmic momentum that is both wistful and valiant at the same time. As he looks upon the photograph of his wife in his wallet, the vision that Ottway has been having of her is given the full reveal, and we finally realise why she is lying in bed and why he has been suicidal when we see the IV drip that has been set up for her. “Don’t be afraid,” she tells him with a beatific smile, the theme becoming sweeter and more devastating as the end draws near.
There is musical catharsis here. A celebration of the climax of life and all that came before it, as well as a yearning acceptance of destiny. The piano thuds like a heartbeat and, although slow and pained, it is still full of enough life to see out one last act of defiance.
It’s just beautiful, folks, and incredibly moving.
Streintenfeld then replays the theme in its first and more delicate variation, dominated by the piano and the strings. This track plays over the end credits of a film that carries a now-infamous final few seconds of footage once the titles have crawled past. Forming symmetry with the image of Ottway placing a hand on the body of a dying wolf, one that he has reluctantly shot at the start of the movie for getting too close to the oil drillers, we see the bloodied fur of the Alpha rising and falling with Ottway’s bloodied lying against it. It is apparent that neither will get up from this fight, and that the leaders of both packs have been taken down. But Ottway is on top … and we can take this as some possible form of victory, if we choose to.
You know, I’m going to do something now that may offend some people. I don’t wish that at all. I really don’t. But there’s an impression that I get from The Grey that I can’t shake, can’t dislodge. We know that Ottway’s wife has died from cancer, and the whole scenario of being out there in the ice, being stalked and picked-off by the wolves, being unable to find a way out and, in the end, being forced to face the reality that hope has already fled seems, to me, to reflect the very carnivorous and all-too-often inescapable grasp of the disease. Sadly, in my own life, I have known, and known of, many people who have succumbed to cancer of one form or another … and almost all of them have gone into remission only to discover a little further down the line that the disease has returned with added ferocity to claim them. To have watched and sympathised with their nearest and dearest as this ray of hope has been enjoyed and then extinguished is one the bitterest, most angering emotions that I have ever experienced. It is the death of hope.
When I watch The Grey, and listen to its mournful score, this is the conclusion that I am always drawn to. The story is a metaphor for the inescapable claim that death has over us all, but a claim that seems more pertinent and tailor-made for the effects of cancer than it does plane-crashes or wolf-attacks. Once it has got its hooks into you, it just won’t let go. Of course there are those that survive it, beat it and never look back … and I would never want my own cynical and defeatist viewpoint to cloud or upset anybody who is going through such a terrible situation … but I have personally witnessed and felt the unforgiving, unrelenting wrath of the disease and its effects upon friends ... and I know, full well, that if it wants you, it will take you.
Hardly uplifting thoughts to leave you with.
But this is a film and a score that, whether you want them to or not, encourage you to think of the death of those you love and, subsequently, how you might greet your own demise. In the great game of existence you should probably embrace death as much as you do life, so it doesn’t harm to be reminded of this truth once in a while.
Marc Streitenfeld finds the cold, dark heart of Carnahan’s desolate drama, but he creates passages of beauty and soul-stinging melody to balance out the pain and the terror. It is not for everyone, of course, but this remains a terrific score for a magnificent film.
This review is for the American disc release, but the CD is available in the UK as well.
Full Track Listing
• 1. Writing the Letter (2:00)
• 2. Suicide (1:44)
• 3. You Are Gonna Die (3:14)
• 4. Walking (1:45)
• 5. Eyes Glowing (1:25)
• 6. The Morning After (2:57)
• 7. Collecting Wallets (1:53)
• 8. Wife Memory (1:08)
• 9. Life and Death (2:52)
• 10. Lagging Behind (1:53)
• 11. Running From Wolves (1:46)
• 12. Daughter Appears (2:13)
• 13. Last Walk (2:33)
• 14. Memorial (3:41)
• 15. Alpha (2:16)
• 16. Into the Fray (1:49)
Live and Die on this day.
If you loved the film The Grey then Marc Streitenfeld’s melancholic and chilling score played a huge part in providing it with such a darkly unique atmosphere of suspense and despair. Therefore, you know what to expect from the music when divorced from the fabulously bleak imagery that it accompanied – a sense of futility, fear and forlornness. Now, you may not think that sounds like a great combination to settle down with once you’ve begun to spin the disc, but it all depends on your frame of mind and your appreciation for the creation of mood via music. For me, the score brings back the emotions of the movie, and allows them to evolve into something else. Something deeper, and far more personal. And that is the incredible power of music – it speaks to people on a purely emotional level, and everybody finds something different within it.
No, it is not a fun score. It couldn’t position itself any further from that if it tried. But it is a powerful statement of loss, terror and resignation that plants a couple of subtle yet tremendous themes in your mind.
With some animosity being vented towards Streitenfeld’s position as composer on Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, I would say that given the ability he shows here to create delicate and haunting melodies amidst darkly textured ambience and sudden jolts of fury and aggression, he may just be able to pull off such a hugely anticipated gig.
Filled with bittersweet agony and dissonant terror, I definitely recommend the score for The Grey but, like the film itself, this will not be to everyone’s taste.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.