Judge Adam Arseneau always keeps warm. He has a fire burning in his pants. Luckily, he has antibiotics now
Our review of The Larry Fessenden Collection (Blu-ray), published January 15th, 2016, is also available.
What if mankind only had one season left on Earth?
A chilly psychological thriller, The Last Winter combines some unlikely bedfellows into a smart and foreboding film. Remote Alaskan oil drilling, Ron Perlman, environmental sustainability, and lots of dead people—sounds like good times to me!
Facts of the Case
After a failed early drilling operation, the American oil company North Corporation has finally received congressional approval to resume drilling in the frigid north of Alaska in the Northern Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, forever altering the pristine landscape. Details of the previous ill-fated expedition have been closely guarded by North, but the new team seems undaunted, anxious to help solve the emerging energy crisis in America.
Team leader Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman, Hellboy) and his men are stymied early by an unnaturally warm spell of weather, which has begun to melt the permafrost. This makes construction of the ice roads impossible; roads which are necessary to transport the drilling equipment up north and begin work. Without anything to drill, the team is stressed, edgy, and bored—a dangerous combination in the endless white tundra.
The greenhorn member of the team, Maxwell (Zach Gilford, Friday Night Lights), has a hard time adjusting to the isolation. After he goes missing out in the snow, he begins to act strange, spending his time staring out into the endless snow, mumbling about "not being alone." The resident independent environmentalist James Hoffman (James LeGros, Vantage Point), on-site to ensure North behaves itself, environmentally-speaking, is especially alarmed by Maxwell's behavior, himself having noticed some particularly odd things. The temperature is unusually high for the middle of winter and shows no signs of abating. He begins to challenge Pollock and the mission, but is angrily dismissed as being paranoid.
The next day, James seems less paranoid after Maxwell is found dead in the middle of the snow, miles from the camp, with a camcorder in his hand. When the team watches the video, things take a turn.
Though they bear nothing in common beyond an obvious thematic link, The Last Winter is in many ways the movie that The Happening wanted to be but had no idea how to. Here is a horror film that takes place in Alaska, in the middle of the Arctic Circle, surrounded by raw, unadulterated nature, sealed in by never-ending quantities of ice, snow, and tundra. The protagonist is an unknown force that assaults a small team of miners tasked with tapping the landscape for oil, and, as you can imagine, things go rather badly for them.
The Last Winter is scary not because of any particular amounts of blood or gore (there are none) but in the sheer psychological isolation of the environment. The landscape is the scariest monster in The Last Winter, with endlessly blinding white sea, blistering cold, and howling winds driving its characters to strange and unusual behavior. The film deftly avoids the horror genre clichés of having, like, one guy murder everyone with an axe (boring!) and goes in an entirely different direction, which ties back into the previous comparison to The Happening. There is a horrific creature in this film, but it probably isn't what you expect—but if you've seen the aforementioned film, you will have a pretty good idea what is coming around the corner.
Of course, I won't tell you what it is. Not openly, at least. That would be spoiling the fun! The Last Winter is a subtle piece of filmmaking, one that prizes terse, Mamet-esque dialogue, long shots, and silence; the razor-sharp anthesis of most modern-day thrillers. No chainsaws, no screaming nubile and naked females (aww), no sadistic taskmaster torturing victims, none of that stuff. The film does get scary, but only in the classical sense of the word; more like dreadful, in that it inspires dread in audiences. The complete isolation and the minimalism of the film have surprising momentum, especially considering the film's plot…which at face value is quite preposterous. Credit where credit is due: horror actor/director/writer Larry Fessenden (Wendigo) sells a totally ludicrous story on audiences through nothing short of complete command of mood and atmosphere.
It is at times a tough sell. The special effects are not quite up to par with where producers no doubt wished they could be. Ambitious trickery to be sure; there are some very daring and complex CGI shots, but without the financial backbone to prop them up, they look laughable and awkward, like an NYU film thesis project. The ending is an ending in the strictest sense of the film (it ends) but it lacks any sort of satisfying climax for the protagonists. We spend much time getting to know tiny, subtle nuances of a generally one-dimensional cast, only to suddenly have them violently removed from the film (for one reason or another; no spoilers here). The third act is the shakiest of The Last Winter, squandering its precariously balanced psychological tension on formulaic horror clichés, unreliable coincidences, and a seemingly never-ending sequence of unlucky events for the hapless drillers.
Still, there is a quality to the film that overshadows its obvious flaws. The Last Winter has great atmosphere, tension, and a foreboding that feels fresh and original and worth praising. We might lose a proverbial wheel or two along the way to the dénouement, sure, but The Last Winter coasts across the finish line all the same. The cast is strong, with Ron Perlman and James LeGros hammering out solid performances as conflicting corners of a romantic triangle. Shot in Reykjavik, Iceland, and Alaska, Last Winter has locations that are stunning in their monochromatic beauty. This one will not win much favor with the majority of horror-seeking audiences, but The Last Winter is too stylish, too atmospheric, and too well-crafted in its apocalyptic vision to be dismissed.
Presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, the cinematography features wonderfully over-saturated compositions of gleaming snow and sunlight, as if the characters are walking about in angelic, pure whiteness. The blaring contrast leads to a fairly muted, dull color palate, with browns and blacks being the most prominent. Black levels are okay, but the film does show some grain. For audio, we get a respectable 5.1 surround track, with a nicely atmospheric string-driven score. Most of the dialogue is firmly rooted in the center channel, and rear environmental placement could be stronger.
Extras are small in number, but high in value. We get a commentary track with co-writer/director Larry Fessenden, who goes into nice intricate detail about every aspect of his beloved project. It's a bit on the dull side as commentary tracks go, but very meticulous. The only other feature is a making-of documentary featuring deleted scenes and interviews with cast and crew. A standard feature, except that this one is feature-length! Scratch that; it is better than feature-length. The Last Winter has a running time of 101 minutes, but the making-of featurette goes on for almost 120. There is an irony there to be sure, but you can't knock it from a supplemental standpoint. This is definitely fantastic value for a single-disc presentation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With films like The Last Winter and The Happening we may be seeing a new trend in thrillers, and it is a strange and unfamiliar area for cinemagoers. The film assigns horrific and dreadful elements to the environment, which until very recently has never had such elements associated to it. As a result, what should pass for scary comes off as anything but. Perhaps we lack the cinematic language to associate terror with these new elements. A guy with a chainsaw, a zombie, and even chest-rendering aliens—these are scary because we know what to expect from the movies that feature them. The environment…well, it seems less scary somehow. Ask poor M. Night about this—he probably knows all about it.
It is interesting to see the fury of nature make more of an impact in the horror world, and The Last Winter gives ol' Mother Earth an ominous, eerie, and foreboding twist. This is a film thick with atmosphere and psychological dread, and even if nature isn't your thing, anyone searching for a thriller that targets your brain will find satisfaction with The Last Winter.
Sh-sh-shiveringly chilly and creepy. A good rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Feature-Length Documentary: Making Of The Last Winter
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