It’s the End of the World As We Know It: “The Last Winter”August 12, 2008
I was taken to task for my review of The Happening in the comments section by someone named (wait for it) “boogieboo” claiming that I completely missed the point of the movie—that the Earth would eventually fight back against the human infestation that was killing it—and that I was instead too hung up on trivial things like plot, acting, dialogue, etc. My response was that premise is only one element of a movie, and that when reviewing a movie you have to judge the whole thing, not just the idea behind it. Exhibit A in my case is Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter. Fessenden’s movie is the film The Happening wanted to be (I know that sounds frightening, but trust me here). It also stands in stark contrast to Shyamalan’s film in how effectively and intelligently it makes the same point. Unlike The Happening, The Last Winter is genuinely creepy, contains excellent performances by B-list stars (who put Shyamalan’s A-listers to shame), smart dialogue, and most startlingly knows something about the environment! Boogieboo’s claims notwithstanding, The Happening’s pro-environment agenda inexplicably exists in a vacuum.
Fessenden cops from the masters by updating a tried-and-true premise—the slow isolation freakout—and ratchets up the tension until the audience is dying for an abominable snowman or something to provide some release. At the Arctic Circle, a petroleum company called North has received Congressional approval to drill for oil in a wildlife preserve, and has set up a small outpost to test the feasibility of drilling beneath the permafrost. Amongst the dozen or so people manning the place, the most personal tension is between team leader Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) and environmentalist James Hoffman (James Le Gros), a Greenpeacy climatologist North has contracted to give an environmental stamp of approval on the project. Pollack wants to drill, couldn’t give a tinker’s damn about the environment, and wants Hoffman to rubber stamp the report stating that everything is hunky-dorky. Hoffman, however, has noticed that the permafrost is melting, and when something called “permafrost” begins to melt, it may be time to admit that you’re in deep kimchee.
Oh and did I mention that Hoffman is sleeping with North engineer Abby Sellers (Connie Britton) who used to be Pollack’s main squeeze? Yeah, that doesn’t help matters any.
Fessenden uses the interpersonal conflicts and pressure over the drilling project to give the movie a low-level tension that hums in the background the outpost’s fluorescent lights even before the really creepy stuff kicks in and team’s psyche’s begin to implode. It hasn’t been cold enough for North’s supply trucks to drive on the ice roads to the outpost, and the isolation begins to wear on them. Pollack becomes increasingly autocratic and dangerously cavalier about safety. Hoffman’s professional notes begin to digress into fatalistic rants about what we’ve done to the environment. One of the team members disappears into the white oblivion leaving behind only his boots. Finally, another team member, convinced that something is out there and means them harm, begins to lose his mind. Things go swiftly downhill from there.
On top of this, violent, powerful winds seem to whip up out of nowhere, accompanied by what sound like hoof beats. Team members begin to see inexplicable things in darkness, and gradually everyone becomes convinced that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
And that’s all before the phantom prehistoric caribou show up.
Like Session 9, The Last Winter wrings a growing sense of menace out of the implacable stillness of nature. Against the endless null space of the Arctic, the outpost’s Quonset huts and CHUs look like shrapnel embedded in flesh. When Hoffman and Pollack make a desperate journey across the ice to get help, we’re deep in Jack London territory and reminded that nature truly does not care whether we live or die. Its final scene is a great coda, both teasing and conclusive, and it seals the movie’s creepiness into the audience. That’s much of what makes The Last Winter so effective—it doesn’t want to horrify the audience as much as it wants to instill in them a lingering sense of doom.
As mentioned earlier, the performances are top-rate. Perlman makes cardboard-baddie Pollack something close to three-dimensional (though no one could salvage the ham-fisted theological discussion he has with Hoffman in which he declares “the God I believe in wants there to be a pipeline here…” A bit on the nose, there, Lar). As Hoffman, Le Gros keeps the character from being a simplistic white eco-knight. He’s bitter and nihilistic about the prospects of the general public truly caring about the damage we’re doing to the environment. He’s also a man slowly unraveling, either due to his own prognosis of our chances or something else.
I wasn’t a fan of Fessenden’s Wendigo (the titular monster looked too much like that pilot in Hot Shots who ended up with the deer antler’s stuck to his helmet), so I was surprised at how much I liked The Last Winter. Fessenden managed the doubly-tricky task of making both an effective horror film and a message movie that’s neither simplistic nor self-righteous. He has a natural visual sense as well as an ability to write (with co-screenwriter Robert Leaver) convincing dialogue.
So, boogieboo—wherever you are—I urge you to watch this movie and then reconsider whether The Happening deserves any kind of pass for being a crap movie. Or don’t. I really don’t care.
But for all of you readers who are not boogieboo, check out The Last Winter.