Grizzly Man: Herzog's Predator/Prey

Werner Herzog is having fun with titles. Yes, if Timothy Treadwell were a superhero, he'd call himself Grizzly Man, because Treadwell is devoted to the point of fantaticism to the great bears, and considers himself their personal protector and vigilante. But more aptly, Herzog's title calls up a divine mode of classification: there are bears and there are grizzly bears; so, too, is there this grizzly man among the rest of us humans. He was Timothy Treadwell, and he got eaten.

There's the old Hitchcockian maxim that if you want to create suspense, shoot a perfectly ordinary conversation between two men, but reveal first that there's a bomb under the table. The first half of Grizzly Man exploits this notion to great effect, because we know within minutes of the start of the documentary (if we did not know before entering the theatre) that Timothy Treadwell, hyperactive spaced-out hippie naturalist, is going to die a gruesome death at the hands of one of the bears he has spent thirteen years studying. His girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, is going to die with him. We slowly circle this fact for the ensuing hour, coming ever closer to the inescapable reality that Treadwell's eco optimism and strange quasi-mystic belief in his own ability to live in peace with inherently dangerous and violent animals is going to not only result in his death, but the death of an innocent bystander.

After interviewing various friends and associates and sketching a rough portrait of Treadwell's annual practice of spending four to five months living in an Alaskan nature preserve among the grizzlies, Herzog stops the film at its halfway point and actually confronts Treadwell's death. Until this point, the portrayal has been one of a particularly dedicated, well-meaning kook and his absolutely joyous love of nature and its creatures. Were it not for the foreknowledge of his death, we'd be no more averse to Treadwell than we were to Troy Hurtubise's particular breed of insanity in Project Grizzly. Treadwell seems earnest and determined.

Now we come to it. A coroner lays out the basic details regarding the remains of Timothy and Amie, which he analyzed. We are then told that there is a tape of the fatal attack. Herzog does not show us this tape, because there is nothing to show; it is audio-only, as the lens cap was left on the video camera during the frantic final moments of Treadwell's life. He does not let us listen to it, either; he listens to it himself. In one final volley of distanciation, he does not even let us watch him listen to the tape; he lets us watch Jewel Palovak, Treadwell's partner and ex-girlfriend, watch Herzog listen to the tape. She bursts into tears from merely looking in Herzog's eyes as he registers the unimaginable horrors of Timothy and Amie's final moments. He then advises her to not only never listen to the audio recording herself, but to destroy the tape immediately, lest it haunt her for the rest of her days.

That's an interesting admonition. Rightly or wrongly, Treadwell (who filmed over one hundred hours of himself with the grizzlies) created this tape of his death. He purposely turned on the camera during the attack, even if he was unable to unscrew the lens cap. Timothy Treadwell wanted this document to exist... and now, Werner Herzog has condemned it to destruction. (It is never specified as to whether Palovak went ahead and destroyed the tape.) This is the hinge point of the movie, regardless of whether it is true to what happened to Herzog while he was making the film. Herzog has now turned away from his subject, declared ownership over the documents of Treadwell's life, and unspools Grizzly Man's second hour as a fascinating indictment of everything that Treadwell did. Herzog does not share Treadwell's optimistic beliefs about natural harmony; he believes in chaos, and violence, and moral destructiveness.

Now, the portrait of Treadwell becomes one of instability, even shaky mental health; Treadwell reinvented himself multiple times throughout his life, seeming always to not only seek a new identity, but a vindication of that identity from forces without. It feels like he finally settled upon animals because they cannot truly deny him the validation he so desperately craves. Treadwell believes that animals have the same thoughts and feelings that he does, and so he finds his salvation in them; the reality that bears do not think and feel as humans (or that he cannot truly think and feel as a bear) is ultimately what kills him.

This is a truly absorbing piece of filmmaking, carefully and thoughtfully structured by a filmmaker who both loves and hates his subject. My only regret in the final analysis comes out of a glancing reference to Amie, towards the end of the film. It turns out that Timothy and Amie had, in fact, left the nature preserve at the conclusion of their trip that year, and that Timothy chose to return, dragging Amie with him. She did not want to be there. She was afraid of the bears. It was ultimately Timothy who got attacked, and who even (upon realizing his certain, imminent death) desperately pleaded with Amie to escape and save her own life. She didn't; she stayed and tried to fight the bear that was killing her lover, and was killed herself as a result. In its own way, this story is even more fascinating than that of Timothy Treadwell. It's one thing to be consumed by obsession (and possibly madness), and ultimately die for it. But to be brought along as an unwilling bystander, and suffer the same fate? If Timothy Treadwell (as his friends believe) died in some form of peace, accepting the natural realities of the grizzly's power, what solace did Amie Huguenard find in her last moments of life? As is often the case, the best story remains to be told.

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