“The world we grew up in has changed forever. There is no way home.”
That bleak entry, from the diary of an environmental scientist working with an oil company to clear the way for drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, foretells an apocalypse that spirals from personal to global in Larry Fessenden’s most expansive, thought-provoking work to date, The Last Winter. A love-him-or-hate-him multi-hyphenate (he acts, edits, produces, co-writes, and directs here) whose films – built on shifting mixtures of genre trappings and deeply personal commentaries – have consistently polarized audiences since the early ‘90s, Fessenden’s hot-button parable about the quest for “energy independence” and the price civilization must pay for ignoring nature’s warning signs achieves a chilling, spectral tone amidst its understated plea for environmental awareness.
Trouble’s already brewing at a small research station exploring the best way to mine the Refuge’s untapped resources when crew chief Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) returns from a sojourn at Corporate. Two new environmental engineers have arrived, one of them (Hoffman, played by James LeGros) is in bed with his ex – camp doctor Abby (Connie Britton), and his surrogate nephew Max has been botching assignments and seems increasingly distracted by… something. That “something” troubles Hoffman as well, who senses a change in the environment that seems perhaps greater than the sum of what has incited it. Max goes missing, the crew begins to splinter, and when a small plane crashes into the station Pollack and Hoffman are forced off on foot for help. Waiting in the “pure, white nothingness” that lies beyond base camp is something unwilling to allow them refuge.
While not exactly a “nature strikes back” film, The Last Winter does layer in a good dose of what ominous signs mother nature has to offer – bizarre patterns of weather, phantom footfalls in the snow, increasingly aggressive blackbirds – before really pulling the rug out from under mankind in its simple, pitch-perfect coda. When the film gives itself over to its ghost story core (what is oil, after all, except the remains of long-dead plants, animals, and people?) it does so in small, effective doses that smartly downplay major special effects sequences in favor of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mentality (the few non-practical effects on display waffle from strong to less-than-convincing, always a hazard for such a modest production).
One thing The Last Winter’s not – supplying further credit to the film and its creators – is polemic. For a filmmaker who’s written books on green production standards and maintains a website on conservation (Running Out of Road), Fessenden offers a fair shake to the argument that whatever the consequences, people must do what they must to survive. Hoffman and Pollack aren’t that different. Both are driven, to faults personal and professional, by their jobs (a recurring theme in Fessenden’s work) and both want what they think is best for the rest of us, offering convincing arguments to back their positions. Not only shrewd in terms of maintaining a wider audience, this casts the film’s characters and its central situation in a realist light. In the end The Last Winter’s position on the topic is clear, but it’s offered without strong judgment against either camp.
What makes Fessenden’s films work for some and not others is their straddling of lines. They aren’t quite this and they aren’t quite that – they’re a little of both, often wedging a third or forth ideology in for good measure. When done poorly these sorts of mish-mashed narratives tend to fail miserably, but with Fessenden’s work each contrasting element perfectly informs the next and vice-versa. His disparities dance together instead of working against one another. The overtly horrific aspects of our running blindly into violent retribution for transgressions against Mother Earth are played subtly in The Last Winter, given a greater foothold each time something turns the screws on our characters.
The isolated team of experts pitted against a force it can’t comprehend is old hat in the horror genre, so it’s a credit to the filmmakers it here feel fresh, or at least doesn’t play stale. The ensemble, lead by Perlman and LeGros, turns in excellent work. Pollack and Hoffman could easily have been drawn and played as Red and Blue, but both are shaded and the actors’ grip on this notion shines through. Shot primarily in Iceland, tech credits from a mostly regional crew are uniformly strong. Music and sound design stand out. Fessenden’s in full control of the medium here, executing a number of intelligently conceived set-ups (including a track around the facility helping to introduce the characters and a retreating bird’s-eye-view of Hoffman’s research tent).
Currently seen on-screen having his face blown off by Jodie Foster in the promo materials for Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, Fessenden’s own work might never receive the same level of exposure the man himself has garnered as an in-demand character player. Still scheduled for a day-and-date release in theaters and via on-demand cable and satellite systems by IFC Films September 19th, what audience it manages to ensnare won’t likely leave The Last Winter feeling indifferent – it’s a film meant to provoke thought and stir debate after it’s entertained, which it does to impressive effect. The horror genre would do right by embracing Fessenden, a genuine heir to the throne built by the likes of Whale, Romero, and Cohen. Perhaps too small and personal a film to achieve such recognition for its creator, The Last Winter still further cements his reputation and above all else, tells a helluva creepy ghost story we’d all be wise to heed.
My review was based on Revolver's UK DVD release of the film. The disc features the film in anamorphic widescreen and 2.0 stereo, and provides decent quality on both ends. It is, however, bereft of any special features save for a trailer (nowhere near as effective as its US counterpart, and strangely lacking in any references to the film's supernatural bent).