In his latest documentary Grizzly Man, director Werner Herzog explores the strange life and tragic death of Timothy Treadwell, a grizzly bear activist who, along with girlfriend Aime Huguenard, was eaten by a rogue bear in 2003. More than just a nature film, Grizzly Man is an entertaining, but compassionate, look at one man's worldview of universal harmony being swallowed up by the chaotic reality of nature.
As the self-proclaimed protector of the Alaskan brown bear, Treadwell spent 13 seasons living with the grizzly at Alaska's Katmai National Park & Preserve. With no formal education or background in natural science, he took it upon himself to defend some of nature's most dangerous animals from human encroachment. Why a former actor and star athlete decided to ditch civilization every summer to keep watch over animals that were already protected by the U.S. government is anybody's guess. But Treadwell--a positive idealist one minute, foul-mouthed crank the next--did it for the simplest of reasons: he loved them. For his last five expeditions to Katmai, Treadwell brought a video camera and documented his every move, sometimes recording several takes to get it right (he was an actor, after all.) Treadwell's footage brings us into the remote world of the grizzly with touching intimacy. While most might be content with observing from afar, Treadwell approached the bears as if he were one of them, standing his ground without fear when inspected. But there is an ominous dread--we know going in the sad fate awaiting him. Over the years, he became increasingly distant with people while growing closer to the animals. In letters to friends, some of whom are interviewed by Herzog, Treadwell expressed his loathing of human affairs while longing to forever live among the bears, even wishing at one point to become one. As we delve deeper into his psyche, however, it becomes clear that Treadwell had emotional problems that went untreated and may have led him down the path toward his grim fate.
So what possessed this man to live among these deadly animals? That's what Herzog aims to find out. Using clips from Treadwell's footage, along with interviews of friends and loved ones, Herzog paints Treadwell as an optimistic, albeit loony, do-gooder trying preserve the last vestiges of nature from the wrecking ball of civilization. But as Herzog digs into his life, we learn that Treadwell suffered from severe emotional problems, as well as a drug and alcohol addiction that ceased only when he began living with the bears. From the clips and interviews, Herzog pieces together a more complete picture than Treadwell ever allowed in life. Even to those who knew him best, parents included, Treadwell remained an enigma. What's interesting about the film is how easy it is for Herzog to underscore this mystery. In his interviews, Herzog usually lets his camera linger, leaving the tape rolling once a person has finished speaking. It's an old journalism trick--shut up and let them talk--which results in awkward but revealing moments. Through halting gestures or verbal searching, the interviewees seem to reveal their trouble reconciling Treadwell's death. But Herzog is a tasteful filmmaker who holds his subject in the highest regard. Knowing the audience is chomping at the bit for footage of Treadwell getting eaten, the director tackles the issue head-on: there is no footage, but audio does exist. Out of respect, Herzog never lets us hear the grisly sounds. The closest we come is watching the director listen, who can only bear a few seconds before turning it off. Meanwhile, Herzog provides a probing narration that seeks to understand and comment on Treadwell's life. Though his voice adds eloquence and gravity to the film, his thick German cadence can sometimes pack too much punch. In one scene, when Herzog interviews the skeptical curator of a Native American museum, he asks--almost argues--that ''[Treadwell] wanted to protect [the bears], didn't he?'' The blunt question stuns the curator, as Herzog's heavy voice lingers in the awkward silence. It's one of the film's funnier moments.
The strange and tragic tale of Timothy Treadwell is one not to be missed. At once heart wrenching and hysterical, Grizzly Man draws the viewer into a world most dare not enter. And without Treadwell's groundbreaking incursions into bear territory, we would never know that old, surly grizzlies scrounging for the dregs of the year's salmon run might resort to eating humans instead.