Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Grizzly Man

(2005) Written and directed by Werner Herzog; Starring: Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog, Jewel Palovak and Willy Fulton; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“I disagree with him (Timothy Treadwell) over his basic view of nature, and there's an ongoing argument between him and me because I do not see wild nature as anything that harmonious and in balance. I think I – and I'm saying it – I think the common denominator is, rather, chaos, hostility and murder.” – Werner Herzog (from 2005 NPR interview with Scott Simon)

“I must hold my own if I’m gonna stay within this land. For once there’s 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.” – Timothy Treadwell

At some point in our life, most have probably entertained the romantic notion of dropping out of society and living by our own ideals and standards. Due to relationships, financial obligations, or taking an honest inventory of our options, most of us wake up and come back to earth. If we’re really lucky, we retain our ideals throughout adulthood, but even those with the best intentions have to make some compromises. A select few individuals refuse to adhere to society’s rules, choosing to live by their own ethos. Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary eschewed prevailing wisdom, choosing to live and ultimately die by his obsession with cohabitating among grizzly bears. The story is told partially by Treadwell himself (in video clips), the recollections of the people who knew him best, and through Herzog’s narration.

Treadwell* spent 13 summers in the remote Alaskan wilderness, among grizzly bears, chronicling his exploits in a diary and (for the last five years) on videotape. The last summer proved fatal when Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard (her family did not appear in the film) were attacked and devoured by a rogue bear. Through the course of his documentary, Herzog re-traces Treadwell’s troubled origins, pieces together a composite of his personality, and attempts to determine what compelled him to return to harm’s way summer after summer. We hear from his parents, Carol and Val Dexter,* who describe a fairly normal childhood and a lifelong love of animals. After dropping out of college, Treadwell moved to California to pursue an acting career, but fell into a downward spiral of depression, drugs and alcohol when he failed to find success. His rudderless, peripatetic lifestyle eventually led him to Alaska, where he took on a second life as a naturalist and amateur videographer.

* In an effort to differentiate from his family of origin and foster an image, the eponymous Treadwell adopted his surname. His father comments, in his defense, that “Treadwell” was actually a family name.

Herzog paints a complex portrait of a man driven by his strong convictions and defined by contradictions. Although Treadwell shunned society, he obviously sought to be a celebrity, making numerous appearances in schools, and appearing for interviews on national television. He fostered an image as an almost mythical character, a lone protector of wildlife, who in turn found meaning through his one-man crusade. He lived for the animals, and was willing to die for them. The video clips from his forays into nature demonstrated the warring sides of his psyche, which vacillated between mania and self-loathing. He could be alternately charming and irritating, sometimes within minutes. As he continued to build his reputation, he became increasingly paranoid, which manifested itself in his animosity toward the National Park Service and people he deemed harmful to his beloved grizzlies. He envisioned a strong kinship with the bears (a relationship that wasn’t reciprocated), and “wanted to become like the bear,” according to a friend and fellow naturalist, Marge Gaede. There are moments when Herzog steps in to editorialize, comparing Treadwell’s delusional behavior to his own experiences on a movie set, where the line between the person and the actor occasionally blurs. In another clip, where Treadwell mourns over a dead fox, Herzog steps in to comment about his contrasting view of a cruel and uncaring nature.

The most unsettling aspect of Grizzly Man is how the film discusses Treadwell’s fate. We hear from pilot Willy Fulton, who discovered the remains and the coroner, Franc G. Fallico, who reconstructs Treadwell and Huguenard’s final moments. The graphic descriptions create a vivid mental picture that’s hard to shake from your brain. Treadwell’s camera was running at the time of the attack, but with the lens cap on, leaving a final audio epitaph. Although Herzog wisely chooses not to include the audio recording in the film, he crosses the line by listening to the tape in the presence of Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend, Jewel Palovak. He admonishes her not to listen to the tape herself, but describes it in detail. It’s a powerful, emotionally charged scene, but in the interest of good taste probably should have been left on the cutting room floor. One of the most effective scenes was shot by Treadwell, a short time before his death. It’s haunting to see him sharing the same frame as his killer, known only by its National Park Service designation, “Bear 141.”

Werner Herzog doesn’t praise or condemn Treadwell, but leaves it to us to decide if there was any meaning in his death. Was he a “kind warrior” as he described himself, or simply a misguided man with a death wish?  It’s hard to dispute the tragedy of his girlfriend’s death, however, since he was responsible for taking her into harm’s way. Since Treadwell is unable to defend his stance, we are only left to speculate about his ultimate motivations. The only thing that seems certain is that he was chasing something we could scarcely understand. Despite the unsettling subject matter, there are many scenes in Grizzly Man that showcase the inherent beauty of nature. But Herzog reminds us this beauty comes with a great price.


  1. A very thoughtful review, Barry!
    Honestly, I've only seen it once, but my initial reaction was...this is the most bizarre film I've ever seen.
    Maybe I should give it a second chance.

    1. Thanks John! It's definitely worth a re-watch. I initially watched it about ten years ago, and I found myself drawn in on the second viewing, but with a different perspective. The second time, it felt less like a freak show and more like a character study (or composite).

  2. I really like your review Barry! However, to join in the discussion I would probably never watch this film again. It left a permanent mark on me and I admire Herzog for this study but it was difficult to watch as some moments are a bit forced: especially the moment with the watch (à la Pulp Fiction) but it was written staged and malaise all over the place.

  3. Thanks, Michaël! I agree that some films, while well done, are best watched once (I have that feeling about The Passion of Joan of Arc). Herzog is one of the most fascinating living filmmakers out there, but (as he's admitted before) he's not above staging a scene for dramatic effect.

    Thanks, as always, for stopping by!