Through interviews and video-recorded footage, filmmaker Werner Herzog reveals the strange life (and death) of the bear-loving Timothy Treadwell, a man who spent every summer for the last 13 years of his life observing and filming the creatures he loved at perilously close range...
In some ways, Grizzly Man is the anti-March Of The Penguins. For last year’s kiddie-centric avian doc-blockbuster, the filmmakers happily anthropomorphised their cute subjects; in Werner Herzog’s astonishing documentary, the director insists via his idiosyncratic, bellow-whispered voiceover that the last thing we should be doing is treating animals like people. That’s what failed actor-turned-celebrity bear expert Timothy Treadwell did, and it got both he and girlfriend Amie Huguenard brutally killed and eaten.
Not that Treadwell was strictly humanising the grizzlies he ‘protected’ during his 13 summers in the Alaskan hinterland. Rather, while recognising, even revelling in, their inherent dangerousness, he convinced himself he’d discovered a secret connection with them, that he and they were innocent children of the universe playing together away from the evils of the modern human world.
This makes for some profoundly compelling viewing. Via Herzog’s sensitively edited use of Treadwell’s self-filmed adventures and observations, the man is revealed as a truly bizarre cove, the kind of hubristic, self-tortured obsessive you’d expect to attract the director of Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre.
Dressed like Chuck Norris and voiced like Pinocchio, Treadwell lives out a Disneyfied action-movie fantasy where he’s a lone, maverick beast-master, one moment frothing obscenities at God (or Allah, or the “big Hindu floaty thing”) for denying the bears rain, the next talking to his cutesily monickered ‘friends’ in a baby-talking voice, wagging his finger chidingly after one takes a grumpy claw-swipe at his face.
Of course, it all ends in tears, and Herzog loads the film with powerful, bitter, dramatic irony. In one haunting moment, he runs a video-diary excerpt in which Treadwell whinily intones to camera, “I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals…”
But is it a tragedy? Well, it’s tragic that Treadwell’s foolhardiness got his girlfriend killed. But, as troubled as he was, it’s hard not to think that the Grizzly Man himself was asking for it — indeed, weirdly, his 100 hours of footage could even be seen as the longest suicide note ever composed.
Part punk wildlife doc, part diary of a twisted soul, part cautionary tale, Grizzly Man is a complex, unique and engrossing journey into the murky recesses of an unhinged mind. It really needs to be seen to be believed.