Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man

*****

Reviewed by: The Exile

Werner Herzog's extraordinary documentary is an account of the eccentric life and horrifying death of Timothy Treadwell, self-appointed guardian of the bears, which roam the five million acres of Alaska's Katmai National Park. In October 2003, at the age of 46, Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were mauled to death by a hungry male looking to fill his belly before hibernation. The couple were probably the last meal that particular bear would ever eat.

Anyone who has seen Herzog's Fitzcarraldo will know of the director's fascination with doomed quests and magnificent obsessions, and in Treadwell he has found his dream subject. A failed actor with a history of alcoholism, Treadwell bummed around California until, he claims, he awoke from a blackout to discover a bear looming over him. Scared sober, he discovered at that moment a bond between himself and his ursine brothers and decided to devote his life to protecting them.

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For 13 summers, he lived in the Alaskan wilderness - where, incidentally, the grizzlies are under the protection of the Parks Department - and for the last five filmed his adventures. Designating himself a "kind warrior," he bestowed cute names on his furry "friends" and became the star of his own private drama, writing his own scripts and grooming his blond pageboy before addressing the camera like a hyperactive David Attenborough. This footage is the core of Grizzly Man and is both mesmerizing and terrifying, capturing with equal clarity foxes playing happily on the roof of his tent and a ferocious bear fight only yards from the camera.

Whenever Treadwell starts to seem a little too batty - bopping "Rowdy" on the snout and cooing like a lover when "Mr Chocolate" appears - Herzog's soothing German voice reminds us we're watching "primordial encounters". That's one way of putting it; buried up to the elbows in steaming faeces, Treadwell is almost certainly experiencing a kind of spiritual ecstasy. "This was just inside him," he tells us in an awed whisper, offering an armful of dung as though holding the baby Jesus himself.

Moments like these are red flags to the park officials whose rules Treadwell regularly contravened. But they're gold to Herzog, whose empathy for his troubled subject doesn't blind him to Treadwell's epic delusions, particularly his blithe insistence that bears and humans are not really all that different. As Treadwell's camera goes eye-to-eye with one of the massive beasts, Herzog is unmoved. "I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature," he pronounces, admittedly benefiting from hindsight.

These competing philosophies form the tug-of-war at the heart of Grizzly Man, with Herzog's indulgent commentary gently contradicting Treadwell's romantic notions of man-and-beast unity. This fateful vision is the film-within-the-film, a nature fantasy trapped inside an examination of a gifted, but sadly unhinged, mind.

As suggested by emotional interviews with his friends and family, Treadwell's trek to the heart of darkness was a rejection of a civilization he felt had failed him. Heroic and foolish in almost equal measure, he followed the call of the wild until he could no longer turn back. The film's devastating ending carries more than a hint of a death wish, a terrible desire to cross that final boundary and become one with the animals he loved more than any human. We can only hope he got his wish.

Reviewed on: 18 Jan 2006
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Werner Herzog examines the psyche of Timothy Treadwell, a man who lived and died with bears.
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Read more Grizzly Man reviews:

Anton Bitel ****
George Williamson ***1/2


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