The Last Trapper

***1/2

Reviewed by: Sarah Artt

Somehow, when you see a man wrapped in animal skins, accompanied by his faithful husky Nanook, cresting the ridge of a snow-swept landscape, you just know this film is about Canada. The evocative use of Leonard Cohen songs is also a dead giveaway.

Norman Winther (playing himself) lives in a log cabin with his partner Nebraska (May Loo) deep in the Yukon bush. They subsist by trapping: they eat the meat from the caribou, beaver and moose and then sell the pelts in the nearest town. Norm sets snares for the smaller animals and hunts moose with a rifle. In the winter, he ice fishes. His preferred mode of transport is the dogsled, pulled by his pack of huskies, led by Nanook.

Norman is clearly an advocate of living in harmony with nature, something he achieves in truly admirable fashion. The sequence where he and Nebraska build their own log cabin, using only hand tools, is as impressive as any episode of Grand Designs. However, life is not all idyllic, a fact brought home by Norman's numerous run-ins with the perils of living so close to nature: bears, thin ice, the total lack of roads and clear-cutting.

The only times when the otherwise quietly observed documentary veers into more constructed narrative territory is when Norman visits the nearest town, which looks so much like a cliche of the Wild West that it beggars belief - saloons, can-can girls, casinos, dry goods stores and trading posts. I wonder about the realism of this portrayal and then remember the town where my best friend grew up in Northern Ontario: three bars, a liquor store and a Chinese restaurant/diner/corner shop. I once visited her there and she took me to the bar down the street that had sawdust on the floor, a jukebox stacked with country-and-western tunes, where the owner's ugly dog had free run of the place. So, perhaps the saloon isn't so far off, despite the fact that it doesn't make Canadians look very cosmopolitan.

The bulk of the dramatic action in The Last Trapper revolves around Norman breaking in a new lead dog, a racing husky named Apache. While he remains sceptical, with regard to Apache's ability to fit into the team, Nebraska is optimistic and encouraging. The dogs really are the stars of this picture, their personalities far more beguiling than that of the gruff Norman. They observe and feel, cocking their heads in such a way that they seem about to speak, a feeling that is perhaps aided by their distinctive colouring.

This is an enterprising, "narrative non-fiction" style documentary that screens like a cross between Nanook Of The North and Never Cry Wolf, an antidote to the tweeness of March Of The Penguins and the weirdness of Grizzly Man.

Reviewed on: 11 Mar 2006
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The Last Trapper packshot
Living with nature and dogs in the cold, old north (Canada).
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Director: Nicolas Vanier

Writer: Nicolas Vanier

Starring: Norman Winther, May Loo, Alex Van Bibber, Ken Bolton, Denny Denison, Robert Lafleur, Alain Lemaire

Year: 2004

Runtime: 94 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: France/Canada/Switzerland/Germany/Italy

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