Timothy Treadwell, Amie Huguenard, Medical Examiner Franc G. Fallico, Jewel Palovak, Willy Fulton, Sam Egli.
Lions Gate Films and Discovery Docs present a film written and directed by Werner Herzog. Running time: 103 min. Rated R (for language).
No one will ever understand what motivated the choices of Timothy Treadwell, because no one can see the world in quite the same unique way Treadwell himself did. Treadwell was an animal rights activist who found a special connection with bears in the Alaskan wilderness, where he spent 13 years living in the wild with grizzlies. Treadwell did not merely study these bears, but he lived among them, tried to understand them, and eventually was killed by them.
Grizzly Man is a documentary made by renowned German filmmaker Werner Herzog about Treadwell’s life spent with the bears and his horrific death. Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Invincible) has a long history as a filmmaker who focuses on obsessive characters that dissent against humanity and often sew the seeds of their own destruction. As you watch Treadwell in his frail, lispy, impassioned voice speak of his dedication to these animals that you already know will be his demise, you realize that Herzog has found a character greater than any of his own fictitious ruminations of this self-destructor type. “I will die for these animals. I will die for these animals. I will die for these animals.”
Prognostications aside, what Herzog unfolds in this study is not a man who has totally lost touch with reality, but more like a man who wishes he could totally lose touch with reality. That is not to say that Treadwell has a death wish, as many of the people that are interviewed but did not necessarily know Treadwell suggest in this film. From the hundreds of hours of video Treadwell shot himself, of himself out in the wild, which make up most of the footage for Herzog’s documentary; it seems more like Treadwell is like many men who are constantly in search of meaning for their lives. Treadwell has found meaning in his existence with the bears, and with that a peace so few of us ever achieve.
But Treadwell is not content. At times he seems more like any one of us than the other talking heads in this doc are willing to admit. Many of his nay-sayers who claim things like, “He got what he deserved,” insist that he had begun to act like and think he was one of the bears. Yet there is not much footage here that suggests this to be true. Instead he often seems all too human, expressing the same insecurities and sentimentalization as anyone living in our modern world. There is one section where he deftly addresses the notion that he is perceived as gay by many people, probably due to the light tonality of his speech and his extremely emotional approach to his activism. His defense of his own heterosexuality boarders on the offensive as he speculates about how it would be easier for him if he were gay, reasoning that the gay lifestyle is one with less emotional attachment to physical partners.
His sentimental views of the animals come out in his relationship with the foxes that live in the area where he camps. He seems to want to make them human rather than become like the animals himself, as he gives all of the animals he knows names and speaks to them as if they could understand human thought patterns. At one point one of the foxes steals a hat that Treadwell goes so far as to call vital to his mission of protecting these animals in an argument for the fox to give the hat in question back, “…If that hat’s in the den, I’m gonna f***in’ explode!” he exclaims to the fox. And when one of the animals he has befriended dies, even of natural causes, the effect on Treadwell is devastating.
While Treadwell lived an eccentric life, it is his death that Herzog is primarily interested in here. From the opening moments of the film Herzog makes it clear that this movie is about only one thing, the death of Treadwell by the very bears he loved so much. Treadwell’s death is the obsession of the living that he left behind. Ex-girlfriends and business partners find comfort knowing he died where he loved life most. Outdoorsmen and forest rangers speak of his irresponsibility and the inevitable nature of his death. Medical Examiner Franc G. Fallico relishes in his own speculation of how it went down. Through Herzog’s lens you can see this grown man’s face sparkle as he delights in describing how the remains mean this must have happened and that would have been likely before the bear had finished Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard off.
Besides the sparse remains of Treadwell and Huguenard that were left after the attack, there is also an audio tape of the attack to suggest how it happened. Apparently Treadwell was able to start recording with his video camera when he was attacked, but he never got the chance to remove the lens cap. Herzog is a filmmaker who is thrilled by filmmaking as random observation rather than planed sequences, thus his use of this audio recording is more likely honest and not planned. It proves both his integrity and genius as a director. He never allows the audience to hear this tape, but is very aware of the duality of an audience’s desire to hear it and horror at the thought of it. There is a sequence where he listens to it himself in the presence of Treadwell’s closest surviving friend and former business partner Jewel Palovak. His on screen reaction to it is everything the audience must know. “You must never listen to this. I think you should destroy it. Burn it.”
Herzog never tries to steer the audience to one conclusion or another, was this Treadwell’s own fault or not. I don’t think he is even searching for any sort of conclusion, but it is obvious from Herzog’s own observations and obsessive fascination that he is in awe of Treadwell’s life and most amazing death. It is easy to get the sense that if Herzog had ever met Treadwell while he was alive he would have been just as fascinated by the man, but it is his death at the hands of these giants of nature among which he chose to live that transcends its own inherent irony into something of fateful poetry.