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Grizzly Man   A

Lions Gate Films / Discovery Docs

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: Werner Herzog
Cast: Timothy Treadwell, Amie Huguenard, Franc G. Fallico.

Review by Rob Vaux
"When the sign says 'Do Not Feed The Bears,' man, you better not feed the bears."
--Homer Simpson

Timothy Treadwell, the title figure in Werner Herzog's amazing documentary Grizzly Man, was a mess. He was self-important, narcissistic, and dangerously reckless. His friends mention attempts to reinvent himself with false identities -- lies that he may have believed more than they did. He suffered bouts of alcoholism, grappled with drug use, and endured emotional despair that threatened to destroy him. But in the midst of his struggles, he found a strange form of redemption that ultimately defined his life. For 13 summers, he traveled up to the remote wilderness of Alaska, where he interacted with the wild grizzly bears who lived there: following them, recording them on camera, and even voicing a wish to become one of them. They became his passion and his purpose, the thing for which he lived. Then in 2003, one of them killed him and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, a fate to which he was never blind and yet seemingly tempted with every breath he took.

Grizzly Man examines Treadwell through the excerpts that he recorded while living among the bears. To it, Herzog adds interviews with Treadwell's family and friends, fellow conservationists, the pilot who ferried him on his yearly expeditions, and locals who felt he got what was coming to him. The resulting portrait is extraordinary: neither kind nor cruel, but finding purpose in Treadwell's quixotic journey even as it refuses to believe his rosy-eyed view of nature in harmony. It interprets his struggle on a cosmic scale -- man confronting an uncaring universe and seeing himself reflected back -- within which the bears themselves are almost an afterthought.

Certainly the sight of the beasts is breathtaking. Treadwell displays good cameramen's instincts with his little recorder and delivers some powerful images of grizzlies in their native habitat. But even more powerful is the sight of the man himself, standing within perilously easy mauling distance and clearly unafraid. That he loves the creatures there is no doubt. His life among them seems to answer some deep-set need in his soul, which he couldn't give up even if he wanted to. And yet, he never quite accepts the harsh reality in which they live. He gives them names like "Rowdy" and "Mr. Chocolate," and speaks to them in cooing tones as one would to a beloved pet. The grim facts of their existence -- the brutality, the indifference, the savage instincts that demand survival at all costs -- never quite click with him. Though he understands the threat they pose, he never really sees them as they truly are.

And the joy they bring him is contrasted by equal amounts of darkness. Treadwell's demons come in the shape of human civilization, which he naturally sees as a threat to the bears. By "protecting" them with his presence, he's able to give his life purpose -- at least in his own mind. Here, Herzog delivers the sharpest criticism of his subject, depicting him as paranoid and even a little deranged as he rants about poachers and developers coming to destroy his "friends." Grizzly Man actively questions whether his need to help the bears is more self-serving than altruistic, and if in the end he is doing them more harm than good.

Along the way, there are moments of unparalleled beauty and awe-inspiring tragedy. The depths of Treadwell's feelings are overwhelming at points, as is the sorrow of his friends, who acknowledge that his death may have been inevitable. In the most stunning moment, we learn that he activated his camera at the beginning of the attack which killed him, and that an audio file exists documenting the whole thing. (We never hear what's on it -- the filmmakers wisely declined to exploit the event -- but Herzog listens to it while on camera, and watching his reaction is like a kick to the gut.)

The results are transcendent and absorbing, depicting our place in the universe with ferocious honesty and unflinching strength. None of us would be so foolish as to attempt what Treadwell did -- or so audacious as to succeed at it for as long as he did -- but in every one of us lies the potential for same intoxicating devotion. Without efforts like Grizzly Man, we might never remember what it means to be a small being in a big world... and what wonders and horrors that can bring.

Review published 08.20.2005.

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