In maybe the most instantly gripping opening minute of any movie this year, the late Timothy Treadwell sets the whole thing up himself: “I’m out on the prime cut of the big green, behind me is Ed and Rowdy, members of an up and coming sub-adult gang. They’re challenging everything, including me – goes with the territory. If I show weakness, if I retreat, I may be hurt, I may be killed. I must hold my own if I’m gonna stay within this land, for once there is weakness they will exploit it, they will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me into bits and pieces… I’m dead. So far, I persevere. I persevere.”
This is a demented film. By all accounts it’s on the up and up as a documentary, but it’s so out there that you can’t help but think it must be fake somehow. Imagine, an Owen Wilson-type dude who goes to live with the bears as a “kind warrior” who might turn into a “samurai” if need be. Why would a man willingly spend 13 summers in Alaska with wild grizzlies? To “protect them” and “educate the public”… Right! As if these gigantic badass beasts needed this little guy to protect them! And what education are we talking about? Well, before being mauled to death by the animals he loved so much, Treadwell shot over 100 hours of video of the bears in their natural habitat, getting ridiculously close to them.
So here we have kind of a Crocodile Hunter suicidal nature documentary thing, but with a gloomy shadow hanging over everything: we know that our guide into this world won’t come out alive. Adding to the weirdness is that the footage was edited and crafted into an actual movie by Werner Herzog, maybe the only filmmaker mad enough himself to relate to Treadwell’s vision. Going from the American hippie preservationist dude to Herzog’s heavily German-accented narration makes the whole thing all the more odd. “Here I differ with Treadwell. He seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe that the common denominator in the universe is not harmony but chaos, hostility and murder.”
Seriously, I’m still not over how insane this piece is. You got lots of insights into the lives of grizzlies, so there’s this fascinating March of the Penguins-type thing going on, but much less cute! For instance, there’s a long shot of two grizzlies beating the shit out of each other – literally. And then you got this goofy mofo clowning in front of the camera, yelling at the bears, being sarcastic at them… We see him going on Letterman, where Dave quips, “Is it gonna happen that one day we read an article about you being eaten by one of these bears?” So it’s amusing, but then it’s not. BECAUSE THE DUDE ENDS UP BEING EATEN BY ONE OF THESE BEARS!
The picture can also be touching in the most unexpected ways. For almost half the film, I was amused by this Simon Rouxish (how’s that for a reference only 2 or 3 of my readers will get!) fellow. Then his childish enthusiasm is peeled off a tad and he starts confessing to his camera, in between bouts with bears or foxes, about how complicated it is to find a girl who’ll stick with you, about his drinking problem, etc. And here I am thinking, whoa! How many layers are there to this story? This movie has everything! Funny, sad, horrific, philosophical, poetic, sometimes all at the same time, “Grizzly Man” is an amazing piece of cinema.