Timothy Treadwell and Werner Herzog were made for each other. Unfortunately their meeting meant the death of Treadwell, as Herzog’s Grizzly Man documents Treadwell’s life and death at the paws of the grizzly bears Treadwell felt were his surrogate family.
Knowing how things end makes Grizzly Man an uncomfortable watch, not because we get to see a bear rip a man and his girlfriend to shreds (we don’t), but because a majority of the film is filled with laughs. For example the movie opens with Treadwell talking about being a warrior, a samurai of sorts as bears roam behind him. Seriously? Herzog finds a plethora of odd footage Treadwell shot of himself, the bears, and the rest of nature around him. Perhaps even stranger are some of the role players, such as the coroner whose every movement and word have creepy connotations. Herzog can’t help himself, as even the seemingly mundane pilot who flew the grizzly man in and out of the Alaska wilderness is introduced with a subtitle of pilot and former rodeo performer. And, like most Herzog documentaries, the narrative is done by the director, not only for exposition but to opine. The deadpan delivery makes it hard to know if Herzog is part of the comedy or sincerely trying to make a point.
The fact that Treadwell wanted to be an actor is not surprising. His roughly one hundred hours of footage he shot while out in the wild is filled with manufactured drama. We know this because we’re allowed to see some of the outtakes and setup of various scenes. This doesn’t take away from the authenticity, in fact it raises it. Instead of pretending the grizzly man is pure in his insane pursuit of his large furry friends, a more complete picture is painted of a man losing his sanity but still hoping to make it big someway. Truth is, Treadwell died just about the time reality TV took off like a rocket. Had he been doing his crazy living with the bears routine today there is little doubt there’d be a bidding war for the rights to the show.
In order to balance out the insanity, there are interviews with those gracefully calling Treadwell out on his crossing the boundaries between man and animal. They don’t make fun of him or point fingers but question his misguided mission. These level headed folks seem alien in comparison to those dominating the majority of the film.
A fascinating character study filled with uncomfortable laughs, Grizzly Man succeeds to peel back the layers that make up the life of a man who wanted nothing more than to trade in the painful reality that life can be at times for the fantasy that grizzly bears could be his best friends.