The Last Winter
by Michael Gingold
What a pleasure it has been to watch the development of writer/director Larry Fessenden’s career, as his films have slowly gained in scope while maintaining an intensely personal vision, exploring deep themes while succeeding on a pure genre level. THE LAST WINTER is his biggest film yet in both scale and thematic ambition, tackling the hot-button theme of global warming with an approach that favors dramatic impact over didacticism. Only those who sit down already inclined to feel like they’re going to be preached to could find fault with it; the rest will enjoy a movie packed with atmosphere and a chilly feeling only partially due to the Alaskan setting.
The wilds of that northern state is where a small team is prepping the site of an impending oil-drilling operation as the story begins. Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), head of the operation, will brook no interruptions, and isn’t especially happy about the arrival of James Hoffman (James LeGros), who’s there to prepare an environmental impact statement. Having witnessed other disastrous example of people’s negative effect on ecosystems, Hoffman is already inclined to deliver bad news to Pollack, and soon finds that rising temperatures are posed to throw roadblocks in the team’s way (literally; the lack of subzero conditions means that the “ice roads” necessary to transport equipment can’t be established).
Meanwhile, nature begins to strike back in more direct albeit initially subtle ways. The environment seems to be having a deleterious effect on the team’s minds, starting with Maxwell (Zachary Gilford), a young worker who goes off on a scouting trip and doesn’t return. Others in the group begin suffering from mental and physical debilitation, and Hoffman starts to wonder: Is it the result of “sour gas” (hydrogen sulfide from deep in the Earth seeping up due to the melting of the permafrost), or something a little more paranormal in nature? One thing’s for sure: Pollack’s sour mood at what he sees as Hoffman’s meddling isn’t helped by the fact that the newcomer is bedding his assistant and former lover Abby (Connie Britton).
The interpersonal conflicts and signs of impending doom are played out against a stark background of marvelously foreboding locations (filmed in Iceland), and Fessenden employs both tight close-ups and wide vistas to emphasize the characters’ isolation. The script he wrote with Robert Leaver maintains a level of drama and characterization that holds the attention throughout, even before any of the horror elements come into play. As in Fessenden’s previous film, the marvelous family-breakdown chiller WENDIGO, the filmmaker engages our sympathy for, or at least understanding of, everyone on screen, and while his own stance on the subject of global warming (a phrase which he smartly uses only once in the dialogue) couldn’t be clearer, he avoids making Pollack an obstinate monster and Hoffman an environmental knight in shining armor. The former is a man devoted to progress and a job well done who truly believes he’s serving his country by providing homegrown energy sources, while there are suggestions that Hoffman has let his activism curdle into unreasonable obsession.
Everyone on screen, in fact, develops a genuine personality, and the performances are first-rate across the board. With his protagonists so well-established, Fessenden mercilessly tightens the screws in the second half, as the landscape’s rebellion against those who would despoil it becomes increasingly direct. There are a couple of great jump-out-of-your-seat jolts, but for the most part the director develops an eerie intensity that builds to a boil and doesn’t let up for the entire last act. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that the spirit of the Wendigo makes a return appearance, and while THE LAST WINTER employs the most expansive special FX yet in a Fessenden film, he uses them judiciously so that they don’t overwhelm the narrative. Even when he stages a plane crash, his focus remains on the destructive results on the ground, rather than the spectacle.
Although Fessenden’s movies have always looked good even on their smallest budgets, THE LAST WINTER (his first feature in widescreen) contains his most striking visuals yet, as he has teamed with cinematographer G. Magni Agustsson to create exterior environments of white desolation and confined interiors increasingly suffused in threatening darkness. Just as crucial to the movie’s success are Jeff Grace’s music and Anton Sanko’s eerie ambient soundscapes, which help turn the setting into an antagonist of its own. Yet even if the environment becomes something of a villain, its actions, like those of the humans occupying it for just a short time, are justified by the situation. THE LAST WINTER makes an impact statement of its own: Without preaching, it puts an up-to-the-minute spin on the traditional horror-movie lesson that it’s not wise to tamper with Mother Nature.
COPYRIGHT 2007 STARLOG GROUP, INC.