Grizzly Man (2005)

This documentary by Werner Herzog follows bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, as he dedicates his life to protect the bears in The Grizzly Maze in the Alaskan reserve. The footage of Treadwell was self-recorded as he wanted to display the kinship he felt between himself and the bears in a way to promote awareness for wildlife protection and leads up to the tragic death of Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard. Grizzly Man combines this footage with interviews from family, friends, associates and those involved with the aftermath of his death with Herzog bringing life to Treadwell beyond his love of bears. In true Herzog fashion, his interviewing is thoughtful, unafraid to share his own theories and opinions but allowing the viewer to conclude whether they believe Treadwell was in the right or wrong.

Treadwell was 47 years old when he had finished his 13 summer or “expedition” protecting the bears in The Grizzly Maze from poachers when he ended up staying longer due an issue with his flight ticket back to California. It was during this prolonged stay that he and girlfriend Huguenard met their horrific and gruesome end. The bears thay Treadwell was familiar with had gone into hibernation and wilder, unfamiliar bears had moved in from other areas of the park. It is an aggressive 28 year old bear tagged 141 that would prove to be the end for Treadwell and Huguenard. The description from Willy Fulton, the pilot who saw the dismembered bodies from his aircraft, rangers who were tasked with hunting the bear who killed them and the coroner who examined the bodies all give a description of one of the most upsetting and graphic deaths imaginable. The opinions on Treadwell differ from Fulton’s claim that Treadwell would not have wanted the bear to be killed for his murder to the ranger stating that he shouldn’t have been out there at all and he had it coming. Both extremes make the film difficult to watch as Treadwell’s goal was to show that the bears are harmless but in the end, a desperation for food and territory spelled out his demise.

One such scene that is haunting is when Herzog listens to the audio of Treadwell and Huguenard’s death as the lens cap on the camera had not been taken off. We don’t see Herzog’s face as he is conducting an interview with Treadwell’s ex-partner, Jewel Palovak, who allows him to listen to the footage despite never having listened to it herself. We the audience do not get to listen to this footage and despite not seeing his face, we sense the unspeakable terror and horror that Herzog is feeling while listening to it. Herzog, clearly disturbed, requests to stop listening after a minute or so of the six minute footage and advises that Palovak destroy the footage. It will be “like an elephant in the room”, haunting her for the rest of her life.

Another scene that is just as jaw-dropping is one where Treadwell captures footage of an extremely graphic fight between two alpha male bears who are fighting to see who will mate with the prime female. It is a harrowing scene that sees the bears seemingly fight to the death as they claw and bite away at each other. Aside from showing the true nature of bears and feeling terrified for Treadwell who is only a few feet away from this, it makes for a truly remarkable piece of cinema. It is footage that I imagine every nature documentarian dreams of capturing. It feels that at this point in the film, the agitation and aggression in the bears is slowly reaching its boiling point and the risk for Treadwell and his life lingers even heavier than before. This display of nature is very different to the one portrayed during the midsummer months.
As stated before, Grizzly Man is a documentary that is more than one man’s love for bears. It is a look into human nature itself and questions whether man can truly get along with any species. Treadwell firmly believes that by acting like a bear, he will be treated as such and lives for 13 summers amongst them unarmed. The footage from Treadwell shows his strong passion for the bears and wildlife as he mourns the death of every creature he finds such as a fox cub and even a bee but then switches to a rage of insults towards insult at the government bodies responsible for the preservation of these animals. His anger goes beyond articulation and turns into a swarm of swear words and lasts a long time, Herzog showing us the full takes. It makes Treadwell an unpredictable and at times uncomfortable subject but engaging all the same.

Another interesting perspective from this documentary is the obsession with image that Treadwell seemed to have. Filming multiple takes of simple actions such as running through a bush wearing a different colour bandana in each one so producers could decide what image they like for a show when Treadwell hands in the footage. Despite this, he dismisses the ideology of celebrity throughout and despises the idea that people may hunt him out in the reserve for a story. Herzog’s interviews discover Treadwell’s attempts to break into the film and television industry, even coming second to Woody Harrelson’s role in Cheers. It was losing the Cheers role that caused him to spiral out of control and contributed to a near fatal overdose. This then triggers questions of whether the rejection propelled him to reject the human race and focus on nature and wilderness.

This documentary is not for the faint of heart with multiple images of dismembered limbs from both bears and humans, it is hard to stomach the reality of the danger that Treadwell was in on a daily basis. The result, however, is a rewarding and haunting piece of cinema that asks questions and allows its viewers to conclude with their own answers. Herzog proves himself to be one of the masters of his craft by allowing himself to continuously be the outsider, deciding to hide his face off camera and even praising Treadwell’s filmmaking skills. It’s a documentary that gives Treadwell’s life and work a legacy that goes beyond his death by showing his footage with no bias beyond it.

Grizzly Man is available on Amazon Prime at the time of writing this review and I hugely recommend that you give it a watch. Uncomfortable and upsetting but thoughtful and provoking.

Have you seen Grizzly Man? Let me know what you think in the comments below!

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