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The Ending Of The Ice Road Explained

Contains spoilers for "The Ice Road"

Liam Neeson, who carved out an entire genre for himself ever since "Taken" hit theaters in 2008, helms yet another action thriller for Netflix called "The Ice Road." Nesson plays Mike McCann, an ice road trucker who has been the caretaker of his brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas) for the past eight years. Gurty is a veteran of the Iraq War, suffering from PTSD and a level of aphasia, unable to clearly understand or express speech. 

When a methane explosion traps 26 miners in a tunnel, leaving them with a limited a supply of air, a rescue mission is set in motion. Unfortunately, to get the men out, a 30-ton gas wellhead (basically a big pipe that provides a structural interface for the rescue instruments) is required. Because the equipment is too heavy for airlifting, it needs to be transported by truck through a route of man-made ice roads. The journey is forged above frozen rivers, lakes, and oceans — made even more perilous by the fact that the ice has begun to thaw and lose stability due to the time of year. 

Without many other options, the McCann brothers take on the job and are joined by fellow truckers Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) and Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), whose brother is one of the miners trapped in the explosion. Each trucker is carrying their own wellhead (making a total of three) in the hopes that at least one will complete the trek. They are also accompanied by Tom Varnay (Benjamin Walker) who claims to be from the insurance company, but is revealed as a saboteur sent to disrupt the rescue to cover up the negligence and liability of the company that caused the explosion. 

Characters in the film are underestimated due to prejudices, but prove their cunning and worth

Both Gurty and Tantoo are constantly underestimated by those around them due to others' ingrained prejudices.

Gurty is mocked by his co-workers and largely dismissed due to his language disorder. However, he proves himself to be an extremely capable mechanic, impressing Jim Goldenrod with his skills. He is also adept at picking up on body language and social cues, despite his impediment. His fighting skills are similarly displayed during hand-to-hand combat with a henchmen, exemplifying Gurty's elite military training. 

Unfortunately, Gurty is belittled by his brother at times. At one point during the movie, while Gurty tries to warn Mike about the instability of the wench they are using to reattach their payload, his aphasia hinders him from clearly expressing his concerns. In a fit of frustration and agitation, Mike hits his brother, exclaiming, "We have one chance, one chance to get out of this and make this right. And you're not gonna wreck it. Not this time!" As Mike insists on adding pressure to the wench, the entire contraption collapses, and Gurty sinks into the icy waters. 

Tantoo is similarly dismissed both as a woman and due to her indigenous Cree background, with Tom referring to her multiple times as "you people." Much like Gurty, however, she proves that it is a mistake to underestimate her when she overpowers her captors and guides the rig through a treacherous bridge while seriously wounded. 

It isn't until Mike's brother Gurty's life is in danger that he is able to reconcile his priorities and see his enemies hiding in plain sight

Although the film's opening implies that the hazards of mother nature are the biggest obstacles, it turns out that the true danger is human nature. Saboteur Tom Varnay's first victim is Jim Goldenrod — Varnay damages his truck before they leave, causing it to break down on the road. Although the group makes a valiant effort to rescue him, he is pulled into the depths of icy water, along with his rig. 

Tom then turns Mike and Burty against Tantoo, accusing her of impairing Jim's vehicle to hoard the $200,000 reward they were promised at the end of the mission. The brothers, believing Tantoo to be the greedy culprit, tie her up, despite her protests that her interest isn't in the money but in saving the life of her trapped brother. 

It isn't until the McCann brothers themselves are double-crossed that they realize Tom is the true perpetrator. After one of Tom's schemes leads to Gurty falling through the ice, Mike finally begins to look beyond his own selfish needs. He articulates his epiphany to Gurty after rescuing his brother, telling him, "They want us to fail. I didn't see it. I've been too wrapped up in what's in this for us." 

Now, finally thinking clearly and without the looming promise of a huge reward hanging above his head, Mike is able to piece together what is happening. After considering the bigger picture and what it means, the two brothers resume their rescue, now motivated by a personal cause rather than the promise of monetary compensation. 

The film also puts forth the question of when a person's sacrifice is considered noble and when it is simply murder

While the 26 miners are trapped underground, quickly running out of oxygen, one of their members suggests "reducing their numbers," by killing some of the injured who may not survive and leaving additional oxygen for the rest. Two other workers, Tantoo's brother Cody (Martin Sensmeier), and René Lampard (Holt McCallany) are vehemently against the idea, which they consider barbaric. Before the group at large is able to take a vote about the fate of the injured men, René threatens to use his lighter to ignite the entire methane-filled tunnels, defiantly stating, "We're getting out of here together, or not at all."

However, if you think about it, the ice truckers traveling through the treacherous terrain to provide the life-saving equipment to free the miners have also put their lives at risk. Why is the sacrifice of the truckers considered noble, yet the abandonment of injured miners in the tunnel is considered abhorrent? Certain utilitarian philosophies would argue that sacrificing a few for the good of the many is a reasonable thing to do. This idea seems to be bolstered by the truckers' plight, who die in their quest and are framed as having given a noble sacrifice for the greater good. However, the miners, who are making an almost parallel argument, are vilified for their selfishness and instinct to survive. 

This dichotomy highlights numerous ethical questions and also illustrates the lengths people will go to for self-preservation, as well as the sacrifices they will make to protect the lives of others. 

Corporate greed and the diabolical exploitation of desperate communities are the underlying message fueling all the action

Of course, the true evil of the film is exposed as corporate greed, embodied by the company's Vice President of Operations, Tager (Bradley Sawatzky), and General Manager George Sickle (Matt McCoy). It is revealed that the two forced their crews to cut the methane sensors to avoid a shutdown, which would have been detrimental to their bottom line. Although they knew that they were jeopardizing the lives of their workers, they falsely assured them of their safety. Additionally, they fired anyone who tried to bring the issue to light, and bought the compliance of the other workers with an extra $100 per month. Then, after the collapse, they did everything in their power to sabotage the rescue and cover up their crimes. 

Not only do the actions of the corporate players display the willful disregard of life in favor of profit, but the compliance of their crew also shows how the group was manipulated under desperate circumstances to be able to earn a living. These sorts of companies cut corners that prioritize money over lives, and they also exploit the land and people whose existence and livelihood is deeply tied to their homes and communities.