The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The Last Winter

Originally published September 30, 2007
Full review behind the jump

The Last Winter

: Larry Fessenden
: Larry Fessenden & Robert Leaver
: Larry Fessenden, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte
: Ron Perlman, James LeGros, Connie Britton, Zach Gilford, Kevin Corrigan, Jamie Harrold, Pato Hoffman, Joanne Shenandoah

The old saying goes that a frog leaping into hot water will leap right back out again; but if you set him in a pan of water and slowly heat it, he’ll sit there and passively, ignorantly, boil to death. I think that’s too-insulting an analogy for the human race and global climate change, since quite a few frogs are hopping and trying to stir their fellow frogs to action, but I do consider it an accurate description of what’s going on in
The Last Winter, an unusual horror film for which man’s impact on nature serves as a giant narrative pan in which to slowly raise the temperature on an isolated and very unstable mix of personalities.

It is sometimes too pedantic, and viewers may be frustrated by the lack of clear explanation. But it is quite watchable in how it comes together, co-writer/director Larry Fessenden (
Wendigo) does an impressive job of inexorably stoking dread through the smallest gestures, relying largely on our own imaginations to guess anxiously about what he refuses to confirm or define for us. Much like the British fright picture The Descent, this is another movie that adopts the two-fisted approach of dropping characters into an unbearably-pressurized environment and then toying with our perceptions within it. It’s a potent technique.

The setting is Northern Alaska, in the pristine expanse known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Oil companies have been staring at this region with drool on their collective lips for decades; and as this picture begins, one company has finally established a small base from which to explore potential drilling sites. In order to win approval from the government, they agree to go about this exploration in an “environmentally-responsible” manner, which in practice means they have hired Hoffman (James LeGros), a respected ecological researcher, to record and report alarming things, which the company ignores. Then they lean on him to sign papers attesting that whatever they’re doing is environmentally-responsible.

He is immediately at odds with Pollack (Ron Perlman), the head of the exploration group, since Pollack needs to start bringing in equipment, and Hoffman keeps pointing out that he can’t. Further antagonism stems from the fact that Hoffman has replaced Pollack in the bed of the feisty Abby Sellers (Connie Britton). As if it wasn’t difficult enough already to endure the isolation and the cold, and the sheer ominous size of Mother Nature’s presence out here where we have yet to tinker. Fessenden does his best work when he trusts he gravity of his location, beautifully photographed in Iceland, and prowls down the hallways of this pitiful little outpost, showing how small and vulnerable we really are in this place. When we peek in the bedroom window of one of the crew, he’s spending his evenings staring at a poster of a bikini girl sitting on a beach; it acts less like an erotic object than it does a sunlamp.

Perlman’s character has too few notes to play considering his centrality to the narrative. He is either aggressive; or, once in awhile, passive-aggressive. But otherwise Fessenden has an eye for indirect behavior, when not dealing with Pollack he has a solid handle on how to get characters to talk past one another, and reveal their buried worries while trying to fake small talk.

Until the weather cools enough for ice road trucks to safely reach them, there is little for this group of hard-noses to do except drink and get angrier at each other. And the weather is not cooling down, in fact it’s getting warmer. You do not need to be an expert to feel that, when conspicuously non-frozen rain starts pouring down on the North Slope of Alaska in February, something is unsettlingly wrong.

But what is wrong, exactly? Is carbon dioxide long-trapped beneath permafrost escaping into the atmosphere, creating a feedback loop of cataclysmic warming? Is so-called “sour gas” leaking from the ground, affecting peoples’ temperament and rationality? Is it true what the boss’s son Maxwell (Zach Gilford) thinks when he says that the area is haunted by what has been trapped below the ice for tens of thousands of years, now being unleashed by our careless stewardship? And when the crew watches a videotape of one of their own dying a very unpleasant death, do they all see the same thing on that tape?

As arguments, strange behavior, noises and tricks of the light on the horizon, and oddities in the weather, give way to real and indisputable death, we begin to sense that there’s no single logical antagonist at work here. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, everything that could possibly be wrong, is wrong. Journals are decaying from scrupulous observations to apocalyptic scribbles. Equipment is malfunctioning. Someone’s nose won’t stop bleeding. Maxwell won’t eat, and keeps wandering miles away to stare at a lonely white cube that covers an old pipe, dug decades before then sealed without any report on what it found. He stares with a mix of compulsion and awe, as if he has found Pandora’s Box and finally understands why every version of that myth ends the same way.

This microcosm-with-a-moral stuff used to be the province of The Twilight Zone, something this movie knows and graciously acknowledges. The moral is tiresomely thick at times, even giving way to stock footage of our polluting ways. This is unnecessary. One of the most primal feelings we carry is that fight-or-flight radar, that sense that something is very wrong, we don’t know what it is, and it could get us killed. The Last Winter is at its best when it’s pinging the audience's radar from every direction.


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