In one of the opening scenes of Joe Carnahan‘s The Grey Ottway (Liam Neeson) considers committing suicide, sticks a gun barrel in his mouth, and then decides against it. Later, in the movie’s final scene, after a harrowing journey through the Alaskan wilderness necessitated by an aircraft crash that has seen his band of fellow survivors slowly whittled away, and as an alpha male wolf closes in for the kill, Ottway repeats (for one last time?) 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‘ straps on broken bottles and a knife and prepares to fight. Fade to black.
That beginning and ending capture the movie’s narrative arc: a man driven to despair, to the point of killing himself, first stays his hand to continue among the living, and later, when presented with plentiful opportunities to just relax his guard and enjoy the most pleasant death possible in the circumstances i.e., a slow freeze to death (as one character does), Ottway declines again and again. Those that might have had stronger reasons to live did not survive; they found, in the wilderness, their will not strong enough to resist its relentless attack on their selves. It is not ever made clear why Ottway declines to kill himself the first time: Was it because he remembered his dying wife’s plea to not be ‘afraid’ and recognized his attempt at suicide as the act of a man who is very ‘afraid’? Or was the invocation of his father’s poem a post-facto rationalization of his fear of death? Ottway might have feared living, but perhaps he feared the void even more. Better the known misery than the unknown.
Those who step back from suicide rationalize their decisions in many ways: sometimes it’s because the utter irrevocability of that decision is frightening and paralytic, sometimes it’s because they let their minds turn to those they would leave behind and grieve for them, sometimes it’s because they realize that their cry for help has gone unheard, and disgusted and disappointed and weary, they turn once more to confront an indifferent world, looking for another gesture that will shake it from its torpor.
Those who explain their decision to stay their hand because of the pain of others have, of course, some explaining to do. Why should that matter once the deed is done? If the thought of the grieving is torment, then surely one way to bring that torment–and the others like it that have brought the despondent to this pass–to a close is to proceed with the self-annihilation? Once the darkness closes in, all will be forgotten, nothing will matter. But the hand still hesitates. Perhaps then, the second putative rationalization collapses into a variant of the first and third, and perhaps even more reductively, into the third.
A greater mystery persists. What prompts those who proceed to get past these barriers? What was it that made them transcend their fear of pain, of an irrevocable act, and despair their cry for help would ever be heard?