Some addicts go to drastic lengths to conquer their obsessions, overcoming one all-consuming fixation by replacing it with something equally risky. Many become adrenaline-junkies, turning to extreme sports like bungee-jumping to fill the void left by drugs and alcohol. Amazingly, troubled environmentalist Timothy Treadwell chose grizzly bears.
Werner Herzog’s astonishing 2005 documentary is a jaw-dropping study of how one man, consumed by his love for nature, decided the answer to his existential crisis lay in the bear colonies of the Alaskan wilderness. Told via a patchwork of fascinating interviews with Treadwell’s associates and excerpts from the eco-warrior’s own amazing video footage, Herzog recounts the staggering tale of a man who survived amongst the beasts for thirteen summers, only for he, and girlfriend Amie Hunguengard to meet their savage end at the claws the creatures he saw as his salvation.
Enticingly raw and revealing, Treadwell’s videos must have been an absolute gift to Herzog. Some of his wildlife photography, particularly one ferocious brawl between two grizzlies, is quite breath-taking. Crossing a line few would even dare approach, Timothy gets so close to these creatures that he begins to consider them his “friends”. He talks to them. He confesses he feels like one of them. His footage is both beautiful and terrifying and behaviour veers towards the troubling.
Treadwell enthusiastically confesses that he “loves” these animals and would die for them and this is, at times, irrefutably comical. His boundless enthusiasm is sweet and his dedication admirable, but his obliviousness to his own ridiculousness makes for entertaining, if uncomfortable viewing. The idea Timothy clearly has of himself as a camouflaged, Rambo-style badass, is at complete odds with his fiercely effeminate inflection that is as camp as Christmas. Giving them cutesy names like “Mr Chocolate” and “The Grinch,” he often harangues the bears, squealing like a shrill, angry mother. Guilty chuckles are to be had, as interviewees express concern that Treadwell had lost his mind, “acting like he was working with people wearing bear costumes”.
As events unfold, Timothy appears increasingly delusional and paranoid, distrusting of humans. Ignoring federal laws that restrict human interaction with wildlife, he reveals a darker, problematic side, frequently loses his cool in frequent candid, unintentionally hilarious revelations to the camera. Whether boasting of his sexual prowess or screaming to the heavens for rain, he is compellingly watchable, often disturbingly so. As interviews with nature experts hint that Treadwell’s efforts could be have done more harm than good, a portrait of a complicated man emerges.
Timothy’s story warns against the dangers of infatuation. With delicate handling of the subject matter, Herzog’s message seems to be that the great outdoors is not the sentimental, healing place Treadwell wanted it to be. Like his subject, Herzog goes deeper than the average researcher, earning the trust of the players in this story, while being respectful and indiscriminate in his use the footage Treadwell left behind. The result is a tragic, whimsical, enlightening picture, fascinating in its depiction of man’s search for answers in a wild land that doesn’t do happy endings.