Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it’s not stranger than Werner Herzog, whose documentary on grizzly bear expert Timothy Treadwell is both real and strange — and far more central to Herzog’s overall work than might at first be assumed.
Grizzly Man, a look at self-styled expert Treadwell, is as quirky and ironic as anything in the director’s filmography, and might profitably be compared to Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Treadwell’s mission is every bit as loopy as transporting a ship across a mountain in order to build an opera house in the jungle or searching for the legendary city of Eldorado. It’s also a good deal less focused.
Herzog works from footage shot during the 13 summers Treadwell spent living among grizzly bears in an Alaskan preserve, fleshed out with interviews (some of which are as odd as Treadwell’s most peculiar footage). From this, the director paints an image of Treadwell that is at once respectful of the man’s determination and hypercritical of both his approach and his entire premise.
Herzog isn’t buying into Treadwell’s sentimentalized vision of nature — even if the filmmaker is fascinated by the technical proficiency of Treadwell’s footage (to a degree that he views the man as a kind of colleague). Herzog finds nothing of the innate wisdom or understanding in the bears that Treadwell envisioned, but instead “only a half-bored interest in food.” The director never imagines that the bears accept Treadwell or realize that he’s their friend and “protector,” but rather that the animals simply tolerate him … up to a point. And that point is, of course, the irony of the story: Treadwell (along with his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard) was ultimately killed and eaten by one of the bears — something we see him dismiss as an eventuality in a clip from a David Letterman show.
Though Herzog is openly critical of Treadwell in his narration and in his choice of clips, he mostly allows Treadwell’s footage of himself to paint the portrait of a delusional obsessive who has discovered a “mission” in order to justify and glorify himself — as well to remove himself from a society he dislikes and has trouble functioning in. Treadwell’s entire self-proclaimed mission is a little suspect, since it’s unclear what he thought he was protecting his beloved bears from. Indeed, the endless footage of him talking to his camera — as if he were starring in an extended episode of Wild Kingdom — often seems much more a case of Treadwell singing the praises of Treadwell than anything else. Rather than demonstrate his interest in the bears, these clips highlight his interest in his relationship with the bears and what he’s done for them, or thinks he has.
Footage of Treadwell alternates between presenting him as a rather fey and very childlike kind of Mr. Rogers and showing him as a ranting delusional who hurls wild invective at those he thinks have wronged him. He’s as apt to read failings in his own life into the actions of the bears as not. And by including a shot of Treadwell delivering plants for a “pansy farm” and then incorporating a scene where he comments that he wishes he were gay, Herzog slyly suggests that Treadwell’s apparent stormy relationship with women may be grounded in a degree of sexual confusion.
Interview footage with his parents — revealing Treadwell lost out to Woody Harrelson for the bartender role on Cheers — suggests he was as much frustrated actor as anything. For that matter, it’s never made clear how close he really came to the Cheers role, or whether the whole thing mightn’t have been a fantasy of the young man who, for no apparent reason, opted to reinvent himself as Australian, complete with a bogus background, for friends and potential co-workers. In the end, you get the impression of someone who went through life making himself up as he went along.
Yet this seems strangely unsurprising in the context of a film where some of the interview subjects also appear to be more concerned with their own potential celebrity status — however fleeting — than with shedding light on Treadwell. Consider, for example, how his actor friend talks about Treadwell in much the same way that Treadwell talks about the bears, while the coroner, Franc G. Fallico, is weirdly philosophical and prone to long-winded dissertations, and seems to be perpetually performing. This all adds up to a rich, strange film — a documentary unlike any other that tells its story in a manner that’s at once inevitably tragic, pathetic and even downright silly. Rated R for language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke