Grizzly Man (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

2005 has been an uncommonly a good year for documentaries, and Grizzly Man, the latest from acclaimed German director Werner Herzog, does nothing to weaken the field. Grizzly Man is actually three movies in one: a wildlife film about how grizzly bears behave in their natural habitat, a character study of an eccentric environmentalist, and a chilling, voyeuristic narrative of how death stalks that man.

For those who don't know who Timothy Treadwell is, let me provide an overview. Treadwell was an environmentalist who gained notoriety in the 1990s and early 2000s when his passion for grizzly bears led him to spend 13 consecutive summers (1991 through 2003) on the Alaskan peninsula living amongst them. During his last five years, Treadwell brought a video camera with him to capture images of the bears and himself in their territory. In October 2003, Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed by a grizzly. Their remains were discovered the next day and the bear was shot. Left behind by Treadwell was about 100 hours of footage that Herzog has sifted through to produce this fascinating motion picture.

The phrase "hoist by his own petard" applies. Indeed, there is something Shakespearean about Treadwell. Bolstered by hubris that led him to believe he could live among the bears without becoming a meal, his recklessness contributed to his death. The real tragedy is that he wasn't the only one to perish; Huguenard, who was new to Treadwell's Alaskan trips and was frightened of the bears, died with him. Nevertheless, Treadwell was aware, at least on an intellectual level, that he courted dismemberment or death. He spoke about it often enough on camera. But there was no conviction in his words. He sensed that although it could happen, it wouldn't. Not to him. He believed only at the end.

Grizzly Man tries to be about Treadwell's life and passion, but the reality of his death overshadows everything. Had he not died, this would have been a far less interesting film. One key element of fascination associated with Grizzly Man comes from examining the circumstances surrounding Treadwell's death. He was due to leave Alaska the morning after he became bear fodder (his undigested remains were found in the bear's stomach), and, if not for an altercation with an airline official several weeks earlier, he would have been home. When someone dies in circumstances such as these, it's absorbing to trace the path that leads to the critical event, and see what changes might have led to a different result. Herzog does this.

Camera footage from Treadwell's last days is used, including images of the bear that is suspected to have killed him. Audio of the mauling exists - the camera was turned on (but with the lens cap in place) at the moment of the attack. On this tape, Treadwell and Huguenard's final moments are documented. Herzog, lacking permission to play the tape, relies on a witness' description of its contents to inform the viewer. We also see Herzog's tearful reaction as he listens to the tape while wearing headphones. He then advises the woman who owns it to destroy it. (One can argue that the inclusion of excerpts from the audio - had Herzog been able to obtain permission - would have made this a more powerful motion picture. But it could also have been seen as exploitative and needlessly sensationalistic. While a part of me would have liked to have heard the tape, I know how disturbing this kind of thing can be, and think that Herzog's decision was the correct one.)

Treadwell was an eccentric. One witness implies that he was a diagnosed manic depressive who refused to take his medication. A candid scene from his camera shows him throwing a profanity-laced tantrum directed at the U.S. government for their supposed failure to protect the grizzlies and their "persecution" of him. On another occasion, he weeps when he discovers a dead bee. Then there's the time that he lovingly caresses a pile of bear excrement, informing the camera that it's not disgusting because "it was just inside her… it's still warm." These are not the actions of a rational human being (nor is his insistence to come within touching distance of some of the most dangerous mammals in North America).

Strangely, there's a little bit of The Blair Witch Project in Grizzly Man. Video taken by a dead man is used to tell the tale of his fatal journey. Indeed, although Herzog supplements Treadwell's footage with a few interviews, about 60% of the material was shot by Treadwell. This includes a harrowing battle between two male grizzlies who fight for the right to court a female. Squeamish viewers may turn away from the sight of a fox whose body has been savaged by wolves, or of the remains of a bear cub killed by its own father (to cause the female to stop lactating so he can resume "fornicating" with her).

Grizzly Man addresses some esoteric themes. Is there a line between man and nature? Did Treadwell see himself as more bear than man? Were the liberties he took by initiating such close contact with the bears "disrespectful" (as one Native American puts it) to the natural boundaries between a predator and its potential prey? Certainly, Treadwell found a clarity in the wilderness with his beloved bears that he could not achieve in human society. And he died the way he wanted to (or, as one person states, "he got what he deserved"); unfortunately, he took someone else with him. Grizzly Man is compelling material from start to finish.

Grizzly Man (United States, 2005)

Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Timothy Treadwell
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
Cinematography: Peter Zeitlinger, Timothy Treadwell
Music: Richard Thompson
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Ranked #7 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2005
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2005-08-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1