Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we consider the ending of the Netflix movie The Ice Road. Yes, prepare for spoilers.
If there’s any lesson to take away from Jonathan Hensleigh’s The Ice Road, it’s that if you put Liam Neeson in a truck on an expanse of melting ice with an impossibly tight window to complete a life-or-death mission, some bad-ass stuff is going to go down.
Netflix’s road-trip-gone-wrong movie follows Mike (Neeson), a rough-around-the-edges, toothpick-in-mouth trucker, and his mechanic brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas) after they are summoned for a nail-biting mission to retrieve miners from a collapsed Manitoba diamond mine. There’s one catch, though: the only way to get to the miners in time is to drive heavy trucks across miles of frozen lake water that’s already starting to melt. But how hard can that really be?
Pretty hard, it turns out. And because fending off the elements was not already difficult enough, Mike and Gurty find themselves ensnared in an elaborate web of deception while on the road. It becomes clear that those who oversee the mine paid off their workers to switch off the gas sensors down below because they knew the job was dangerous but wanted to snatch up those diamonds anyway. That led to the explosion, which in turn leaves the suits racing to cover themselves by sending one of their own, Varnay (Benjamin Walker), on the rescue mission with the truckers. He tells the others that he is just an insurance guy. His real purpose, however, is to make sure the mission fails so none of the miners live to tell the tale of their boss’s wrongdoings.
But when it comes to a failed mission, Mike is the wrong guy for the job. In The Ice Road’s thrilling final act, Mike manages to trap Varnay in a truck as it falls through the ice, and Gurty is crushed between another truck and the gate of a bridge.
Now it is up to the remaining survivors, Mike and Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), to complete the mission. So they speed away to the mine and arrive just in the nick of time. The miners make it out alive and spill the beans on the fact that those in charge put their lives in danger. Good prevails, and evil is punished. Family is reunited (Tantoo’s brother was one of the miners), and friendships are strengthened. In the heartwarming penultimate shot at the end of The Ice Road, Mike drives away in a new truck with a license plate that reads: “TRK TRK TRK” — a name that Gurty jokingly gave their rig during the mission.
On its surface, The Ice Road seems to merely be a fun romp of a high-stakes disaster action movie. But it has a little more to say than that. Perhaps the most present theme in the movie is that of family. Indeed, this is a movie with cool stunts and delightfully frustrating roadblocks at every turn. But more than anything, it is a movie about the importance and endurance of familial bonds. The first thing we are introduced to in The Ice Road is the relationship between Mike and Gurty. It is indeed a frustrating one: Gurty is an Iraq War veteran and suffers from PTSD and aphasia. Because of that, it is hard for him to keep a job, and as his primary caretaker, that makes it hard for Mike to keep a job, as well.
Understandably, this is aggravating for Mike. Partway through the movie, Mike unleashes his frustration on his brother, cruelly yelling at him about what a burden he is. But when Gurty later dies, Mike realizes that his brother is the most important thing in his life. Perhaps this realization comes too late. But with Gurty’s tragic demise comes a newfound motivation from Mike’s end. As Tantoo later puts it: “Gurty died so that the miners would live.” Mike’s love for his brother pushes him toward the selflessness that gives him the final push to save other people’s family members.
And Mike isn’t the only one whose familial devotion makes him a more equipped rescuer. Tantoo also has high stakes in the matter, as her brother is trapped in the mines. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the two people who survive the mission and prevail over the evil also have strong family connections that, consciously or subconsciously, motivates them the whole way.
Under the surface of The Ice Road, though, lies a slightly more sinister message. While the movie’s villains appear to be overly dramatized caricatures of evil, there is actually an air of truth to their characters. Diamond miners are notoriously underpaid, and small-scale diamond miners are often hired without comprehensive training, or even proper mining materials, which makes them much more susceptible to accident, injury, and even death. Sometimes the most terrifying disaster movies are the ones about preventable disasters, and this is certainly the case for The Ice Road.
Another pertinent reminder The Ice Road brings with it, in the end, is how much we love to watch disaster movies as catharsis during times of adversity. During the pandemic, a number of disaster-centered movies topped the box office charts, like Wonder Woman 1984, Godzilla vs. Kong, and Tenet, while the disaster movie Greenland was a hit on VOD. It is no secret that people like to have some distraction from less-than-ideal current affairs. And if that includes learning a thing or two about family values — as well as watching Liam Neeson crawl up the side of a moving ice truck — then, hey, we’re all about it.