“The Last Winter” is a horror movie about global warming. Influenced by “The Shining”, “The Thing” and “The Blair Witch Project,” but certainly something unique on its own terms, it focuses on a small group of oil company employees who constitute the advance guard of an assault on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Included in the group are a couple of environmental impact consultants who are wary about the enterprise, especially in light of some rather alarming developments.
Despite the fact that it is the dead of winter, the weather has been warmer than at any time in history. James Hoffman (James LeGros), the senior environmental scientist, tries to convince the hard-driving and profit-oriented chief Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) to abandon the project since there is no way to ensure that nature will survive the impact. He is especially concerned about North Oil Company’s plans to construct a road to the drilling site since the ice has melted to the point that the underlying tundra is only a few inches below. He also wonders if it is necessary to drill for oil in ANWR since keeping tires inflated to the proper level, etc. would save the same amount of energy that would be supplied by the new wells. Pollack, a hard-nosed oil company loyalist, tells Hoffman that his objections are pointless and orders him to sign a statement saying that the project involves no significant risk.
Although he is not an environmental scientist, Maxwell (Zach Gilford), a member of the crew, shares Hoffman’s anxieties. On a visit to the site where the pilot drilling project took place, he encounters an apparition–a herd of caribou ghosts stampeding across the horizon. It soon becomes clear that they are wendigos, an American Indian avenging spirit. In this instance, the wendigos are acting on behalf of the souls of the dead animals beneath the Alaskan permafrost whose burying ground has been violated.
Eventually Maxwell goes off the deep end and wanders off into the night completely naked, clutching a video camera to record the avenging spirits. A rescue party finds him the next day frozen on the ground, his eyes plucked out by ravens. Everything begins to go downhill from this point on.
Despite the film’s obvious homage to horror film conventions, it is much more of a psychological thriller even leaving open the possibility that the crew is suffering more from cabin fever than actual visitations from the paranormal. Director and screenwriter Larry Fessenden creates a creepy, claustrophobic environment where endless fields of frozen snow have the same effect as a 6 by 10 prison cell. Filmed in Iceland, the movie has much more in common, as the NY Times points out, with Val Lewton horror films (“The Cat People”, “I Walked with a Zombie”) than it does with the typical horror blockbusters of the current era.
Director Larry Fessenden was available to answer audience questions at the 7:45 screening last night at the IFC Theater in New York. After I was called on, I referred to recent reports about a one-year loss of Arctic ice being equivalent to the size of Texas, and to worries that the point of no return might have been reached. Since the film ends on a bleakly apocalyptic note, I wondered if such reports might have been in the back of Fesseden’s mind when he made the film.
He replied that even if it is a losing cause, we are called upon as human beings to struggle for an alternative. As a socialist for the past 40 years, I could identify with his sentiments.
On the website for “The Last Winter“, there is a link to the Running Out of Road website, where the director provides information about global warming and how to fight it. As has become more and more obvious, the film industry has become an important ally of the environmental movement as Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and the more recent “11th Hour” by Leonardo DiCaprio would demonstrate.
“The Last Winter” is distinguished by its artistic approach to the crisis. As was the case with the nuclear crisis of the Cold War era (which of course has never been truly resolved), which produced groundbreaking works such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and the uncut “Godzilla”, Fesseden creates an imaginary landscape filled with real monsters–to paraphrase Marianne Moore. Check the film website for screening information on theaters near you.