Wednesday, September 10, 2008


“Alaska, vast wilderness of the north. Land of great natural beauty and diversity. This is rugged country, land of black gold.”
-- North Industries company video

The land is changed... the biosphere turned, become unfamiliar and erratic. I would say vengeful, but nature is indifferent to us. We fight for our survival, not nature’s.
There’s a fierceness in the wind I’ve never felt before—something is being unleashed from the softening permafrost.
-- An excerpt from James Hoffman’s journal

Two decades after a test well was drilled into a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, North Industries (“Trust. Risk. Results.”) stands poised to begin an earnest push towards erecting drill sites and pipelines, with an eye towards discovering more oil deposits as the U.S. stubbornly marches towards its goal of “energy independence.”
They just need the thumbs up from the “greenies,” environmental experts who can determine whether the move will impact adversely on the land.
But something is happening at the North Industries base camp. Something whose epicenter seems to be that test well. Something that will brutally remind the North Industries team that the human race doesn’t call the shots.

The Last Winter (co-written, produced, edited, and directed by Larry Fessenden) is an absorbing piece of environmental horror that paints a sinister portrait of nature turned vicious, as it strikes back at the species that has systematically plundered it for its resources, unmindful of the consequences.
The struggle between those who would continue to simply take and those who would prefer circumspection is solidified in the persons of company man Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), who leads the North Industries team, and James Hoffman (James LeGros), one of the two on-site “greenies,” who senses the wrongness in the air, but cannot quite pin it down, initially focused as he is on numbers and measurements.
It’s the tension and debate between these two characters—and the excellent performances by the actors—that anchors The Last Winter, even as the on-screen events serve to unravel the tight community of the North Industries team.

With a premise that contains much of the action within the confines of the base camp, the scenario is one we’ve seen in cinema before, of comrades co-existing in a claustrophobic space, cut off from civilization, in a situation where the stresses are monumental, and the individuals’ mental health is always placed in a questionable light.
It’s the scenario of Ridley Scott’s Alien, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, or, more to the point, John Carpenter’s The Thing.
The Last Winter is, in fact, the first time since Carpenter’s classic remake that the scenario has been so bloody effective.
Fessenden’s script and steady hand, coupled with G. Magni Ágústsson’s excellent cinematography and the rest of the commendable cast, rams the situation home, not only in the slow and steady build-up, but also in the chilling desperation of the film’s third act.

The atmosphere of tension and uncertainty Fessenden captures, where everything—even the swerving and gliding camerawork of Ágústsson—becomes suspect and worthy of fear, is all-encompassing, a shroud of unease which blankets the audience for a majority of the film’s running time.
Even in the face of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening—which engenders its own air of suspense and paranoia in relation to nature’s cruel charms—Fessenden’s achievement in The Last Winter still remains cinema’s most effective environmental creepfest of recent memory (and without Shyamalan’s bad case of miscasting).
It’s this sense of nervous anticipation which permeates The Last Winter—of what could be just around the corner and in the next few minutes of running time—that keeps the film tight and riveting during the deliberately paced first act.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also make mention of the pair from Friday Night Lights: Connie Britton (who plays Abby Sellers) and Zach Gilford (as the youngest member of the team, Maxwell McKinder, son of Pollack’s close friend).
I may not have gotten into the show, but these two are also a large part of what makes The Last Winter work. There’s a quiet, yet solid strength to Britton’s Abby (who is also simultaneously an ambiguous figure whose true motivations aren’t readily apparent), while Gilford’s Maxwell is the first to twig to the nature of exactly what is out there in the ice and snow—the bit with the camera in the dead of night is a fantastic sequence—his performance largely understated, yet hauntingly effective.

The Last Winter is the kind of horror film I love, the kind that unsettles and disturbs and actually says something in the process.
Yes, there are montages and stock footage that serve to drive Fessenden’s point home, but there are also more subtle and devious bits to keep the audience unbalanced: disquieting shots of bleak fields of ice, the stark whiteness broken by lone objects. Footprints that stop dead in the snow. Scrawled journal pages. A pair of boots, abandoned.
There’s also that damned killer tease of a final shot.
And there’s Tom Laverack’s “Running Out of Road” (with Fessenden on sax and backing vocals), a post-millennial dirge to the planet we’ve systematically destroyed, and the dead end we’re still careening towards; the film’s final grace note, that turns the expertly sustained horror of The Last Winter into a wracking grief for all that we’ve lost, and all that we still stand to lose.

The world we grew up in is changed forever.
There is no way home.
-- An excerpt from James Hoffman’s journal

“I really think that the best horror is derived from real life and the fact is, real life is filled with issues. I don't know if they need to be partisan issues, but they're political and that there are solutions and there's debate as to how to address things.
“In the case of
The Last Winter, we can disagree all we want about how to solve problems, but the problems don't change. They can get worse and worse and you can keep arguing all you want, but the f*cking world can collapse around you. You can do something or not, but the world ain't waiting for us to come up with solutions. It's going to do what it's doing and it's moving in a very scary direction.”
-- Larry Fessenden

Parting shot: A double bill of The Last Winter and Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth should scare the living daylights out of its audience.
Throw The Happening in there and turn everyone into instant Greenpeace members…
Or at the very least, make them check out this section of the world wide web…

(The Last Winter OS courtesy of; images courtesy of and

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