Lionsgate // 2005 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // February 6th, 2006
A true story of a life gone wild.
Timothy Treadwell was a young man adrift in the world, when he received an epiphany of sorts in the late 1980s. He decided to become an advocate for grizzly bear safety, and in some circles was known as the "bear whisperer." He would go out into the National Parks of Alaska with little formal training, but believed he could connect with the bears on some level. He made the summer trips to Alaska for 13 years, bringing along a video camera during the last five years. In 2003, Treadwell and his girlfriend were mauled and devoured by one of the bears, and the incident was caught on camera (purely on audiotape, the camera lens cover cap was on). Legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog (Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo) edited the approximate 100 hours of video footage into a de facto documentary on Treadwell's life. Is Grizzly Man worth the praise?
Well, Herzog first explains that he felt a small kinship to Treadwell, because Herzog himself had spent long amounts of time in the jungles of South America, and instead of deadly bears, Herzog's perilous threat was a temperamental Klaus Kinski.
Treadwell's love for the bears is without question. He goes to elementary schools and talks about them, not charging an appearance fee. He appears on several news and entertainment shows, including once on David Letterman. One scene has him in a tent during a summer drought, pleading for some rain, as some cannibalism by bears has taken hold in some of the groups. Hours later, when rain is falling at a steady clip, it's clear that no one can possibly be happier at that moment in the world. With his higher pitched voice and blonde hair, he stands out among the empty spaces of the Alaskan wilderness.
While the film does show Treadwell's moments of joy, it does what it can to try to answer the questions surrounding Treadwell's life. He was a scholarship diver at Bradley University, before running into a period of drug and alcohol addiction. His family (who are eerily surrounded by a small quota of teddy bears) recalls that he was apparently in the running for a role in Cheers that eventually went to Woody Harrelson. He tried using a false biography about himself to strangers, which included using a very amateurish Australian accent. Herzog does seem to suggest that Treadwell's devotion to the bears slightly clouds his perspective. Treadwell's claims of population levels are statistically rebuked, and near the end of his life, he is openly hostile toward Park authorities who he claims are harassing him.
In Grizzly Man, Herzog's narration is unlike traditional documentary narrative. He tackles Treadwell's life from several different angles. Among those, he looks at his life from a filmmaker's perspective, of course. There is some footage of Treadwell doing multiple takes into the camera from various locations. He looks at the emotion that Treadwell exhibits at various times. Sometimes, as Herzog states, it's almost as if the camera is a sort of "confessional" that gives Treadwell the chance to reflect on things larger than his love of bears. And sometimes, any connections that Treadwell made with bears, foxes and other animals are the most beautiful things captured on film.
Herzog does not play the audiotape that recorded Treadwell's death; he doesn't have to. There is an extended scene with the coroner who examined Treadwell's remains, and he recounts what is heard on the tape. He looks directly into the camera when discussing the details of the deaths of the two. He does this in the morgue, where you expect to see and hear things of graphic gore. But what is perhaps the most emotionally affecting scene of the film is of Herzog, listening to the tape on headphones as it is played by Treadwell friend (and Grizzly People co-founder) Jewel Palovak. Herzog is visibly stunned and horrified, and apparently does not listen to the whole tape. One of the first things he says to Palovak is that the tape must be destroyed. She has not listened to the tape, nor does she plan to, but Herzog knows (and says) that the tape will haunt her for the rest of her life. He has seen the autopsy photos and has heard the tape; they both know what occurred was gruesome, Herzog now completely knows the extent, and knows that no one should experience it. In another morbid -- but not as effective scene -- Palovak receives Treadwell's watch, which was found still running on what was left of his arm when authorities arrived at the camp scene.
What is one to ultimately deduce from Herzog's film and Treadwell's life? Treadwell was one who seemed adrift in the world until 1989, when his first Alaskan trip left an indelible mark on him. Many experts seem to think that more harm than good was done to the bears as a whole, as Treadwell seemed to unknowingly allow the bears to lose a sense of self-defense or protection around other humans, like poachers or tourists. Any methods that he had when conducting himself around bears were unorthodox at best, or just foolish and life-threatening at worst. But the happiness he shows when around the animals, and some of the bonds he makes, transcend a lot of interaction in today's world. Treadwell's life was fairly unique and the calling was even more so, and Herzog does an excellent job in providing balance, compassion and sympathy in all facets of the story.
Sadly, Lions Gate doesn't have too many extras on this feature. Aside from some trailers, and an extended look at the soundtrack production (done by former Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson), there's very little additional material. To be fair, the soundtrack feature is extensive and very interesting and shows what Herzog was going for in the score, but I would have enjoyed more insight from Herzog on the making of the film. A commentary by Herzog on the experiences editing the footage and filming the individuals would have been welcome and should have been encouraged.
Documentaries are a source of inspiration, wonder, and pain. Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man is a fascinating look at a man who is, innocently enough, trying to find his place in the world. And he will defend himself doing it however he can.
Remember when I said Ring of Fire was one of the best documentaries of 2005? Well, I choose to revise those remarks. This film is a top notch addition to an already legendary filmography. Grizzly Man is found not guilty on all counts. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "In the Edges: The Grizzly Man Session" Scoring Featurette
* Official Site
* Werner Herzog Official Site