This movie is fascinating, and also utterly disturbing… in short, Herzog at his finest.
The mild, blonde, seemingly-gay Timothy Treadwell escapes to the wilds of Alaska in order to save the integrity of his soul by communing with bears. He does so successfully and with passion for something like 11 years. On his final trip, he and his female companion are mauled to death by a grizzly bear, an event of which survives an audio recording.
Treadwell (and the friends of his whom Herzog interviews) all seemed like stereotypical prescription-drugged-out California coast space-cases. Treadwell himself seems to have been dangling precariously on some border between reality and a fantasy-drama in which he was the king of the bears. The only genuine people in this movie were Treadwell’s parents—his mother clutching a small stuffed teddy bear and talking about Timothy’s childhood love of animals, his father talking about failed auditions that broke Timothy’s spirit. They’re an interesting contrast to the more plastic world that Timothy moved away to, and make clear how ill-fitting Timothy may have been in his new life, dreaming of acting and becoming a star in the cruel wilds of California.
Hanging over the entire movie, in a throbbingly macabre way, is the fact that Timothy was mauled, bitten, eaten and dismembered by bears. Herzog is shown on camera listening to the audio track of Timothy’s last horrifying moments, but chooses not to share the soundtrack with his viewers. Herzog is fascinated by the enigma of Treadwell-his eco-bravado, the shallow failed-actor life he escaped, the drama and utter finality of his death-which ultimately, for me at least, is even more disturbing than Treadwell’s story to start with.
Herzog obviously sees some sort of poetry in Treadwell’s story; a small benign man ravaged by the evils of a world which he refused to see. Personally, Treadwell seemed to me kind of like an idiot; a kind-hearted fool who couldn’t find fulfillment in his life among humans and turned to nature to fancy himself larger-than-life, kindred to the spirits of wild animals. But what happened to him, and to his companion, seems pretty inevitable when you talk about someone who not only swelled his own sense of invincibility with tales of his own power, but refused to recognize and respect the power of an animal like a brown bear, who surely deserves to have distance and deference accorded him. To not do so is insanity.
So there we have it. A Werner Herzog movie where the hero is insane, and seems unable to find a place in the universe in which he can find peace. Herzog thematics 101? Perhaps. But worth watching all the same.