Werner Herzog knows all about committing madness to film, which makes him the perfect choice for Grizzly Man. His mission: document the life of a man who preferred bears to humans, to the point where he did everything short of growing a thick fur coat and fishing salmon from streams - and for his trouble, ended up as a grizzly's dinner.
The German director has been responsible for such works of mad cinematic genius as Heart of Glass (almost the entire cast worked under hypnosis), Aguirre: The Wrath of God (during which he threatened to shoot star Klaus Kinski) and Fitzcarraldo (for which he dragged a 340-ton ship over an Andes mountain). He clearly sees a kindred spirit in Timothy Treadwell, a frustrated actor and reformed drug user who decided to all but abandon civilization and live with (Treadwell would have preferred the term "protect") a group of Alaskan bears.
Unlike Herzog, however, Treadwell - seen mostly in footage he shot himself - quickly proves more exasperating and irritating than interesting. His enthusiasm seems forced, and his relationship with the bears seems just plain odd. While he respects their strength and sense of territoriality, at some level, he seems to regard them as his cuddly best pals, giving them names like "Mr. Chocolate."
All that, plus it's never quite clear what he's "protecting" them from. Rather, it seems like he and the bears are simply hanging out. If anything, the bears aided him; it was seeing them during an Alaskan visit, Treadwell says, that persuaded him to straighten out his life.
What Treadwell really wanted to do, it appears, was make movies. That's not surprising; at one time he had aspirations of becoming an actor. (According to his father, he lost out to Woody Harrelson for a role on TV's Cheers, a setback that began his downward spiral into alcohol and drugs.)
To make his documentary, Herzog sorted through some 100 hours of existing footage, almost all shot by Treadwell, much of it starring him (thanks to the use of a tripod). Although he proclaimed himself a naturalist and projected an air of spontaneity on camera, Treadwell wasn't above re-shooting a scene, and he put a lot of thought into how he looked on camera.
What's most fascinating about Grizzly Man is the degree to which Treadwell used the camera as a confessor, a substitute for the human companionship he lacked. He screams at the camera when rain refuses to fall, jeopardizing the area's food supply; he quizzically asks why he can't find a girlfriend, though he insists he's a "fun guy"; he rails against humanity, clearly suggesting he doesn't count himself a member.
But, like so much surrounding Treadwell, much of what he "reveals" to the camera turns out to be a lie, or at best, a con. For example, although he was often alone, he wasn't always starved for company. During much of his Alaskan stay, he was accompanied by his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, but he refuses to ever let her be seen on film. She ended up being killed by the same bear that killed Treadwell.
There's an element of the nature film to Grizzly Man, and those passages are truly stunning, offering an up-close look at these magnificent animals. And while Herzog sees a lot to admire in Treadwell, he sees plenty of the sham in him as well.
His true compassion seems to be for the people Treadwell left behind, especially Jewel Palovak, an ex-girlfriend who sees him as little short of saintly. When Herzog listens to audio footage of the fatal attack (the lens cap was never removed from the camera, so there's nothing to see), he argues with compassion that Palovak should destroy the tape and not subject herself to the pain of listening to it. With great tact, Herzog doesn't include the audio in his film.
Herzog finds peeling away all the artifice fascinating, and indulges Treadwell more than some members of the audience might. Herzog, throughout his career, has seen the camera as a revealer of the truth, as a tool that offers insight into the human condition. It's not hard to see what he sees so compelling about Treadwell's story.
Directed by Werner Herzog
Released by Lions Gate Films
Rated R (language)
Time 103 minutes
SUN SCORE * * * 1/2 (3 1/2 STARS)