Criminally Ignored: The Last Winter (2007)

It’s a very risky project when a filmmaker tries to make a genre film that wears a political message on its sleeve.  But that’s exactly what co-writer/producer/director Larry Fessenden did with The Last Winter.  Unlike other films that have attempted to merge an ecological message with horror elements (I’m looking at you The Happening), Fessenden did a smart thing and focused on making a good horror movie with interesting characters.  He then sprinkled in timely arguments against drilling in Alaska’s Wildlife Refuge for oil by suggesting that Mother Nature will only be pushed so far before she reacts violently and slaps the shit out of the human race for its shortsighted arrogance.  If you find yourself on the other side of this argument, it’s doubtful that anything Fessenden presents in the film will change your mind.  But, if you’re like me, you believe that it’s only a matter of time before we use up the available fossil fuels and find ourselves sinking into anarchy because we didn’t properly perfect alternate, renewable forms of energy.  If that’s the way you think, The Last Winter is a frightening film.

A stellar cast is headed up by Ron Perlman as Ed Pollack, the head of an exploratory group working for an oil company that has been given rights to drill for oil in the frozen Alaskan Wildlife Refuge.  The group’s job is to determine if an ice road can safely be built into the area without harming the environment.  Pollack couldn’t care less if the environment is harmed.  He strictly views his job through the prism of achieving one goal: get the oil out of the ground as quickly as possible.

Doing his best to slow Pollack down and consider all the options is James Hoffman (James LeGros), an environmentalist hired by the oil company to appease the people protesting against their drilling in the Refuge.  Hoffman finds troublingly high temperatures for wintertime in the Arctic.  The temperatures are so high, he sees no way that an ice road can be constructed without doing serious damage to the environment and refuses to sign off on the project, no matter how much Pollack pressures him.

Caught in the middle of the power struggle between these two strong-willed men are: Abby (Connie Britton), Pollack’s right-hand woman, who just happens to be his ex-girlfriend–oh yeah, she’s now sleeping with Hoffman; Maxwell (Zack Gilford), the unstable greenhorn who is the son of Pollack’s best friend; Motor (Kevin Corrigan), the pot-smoking mechanic who just wants to be left alone; Elliot (Jamie Harrold), Hoffman’s less than levelheaded assistant; and Lee (Pato Hoffman) and Dawn (Joanne Shenandoah), two Native-American members of the group serving, respectively, as guide and cook.

When bizarre things (beyond February rainfall north of the Arctic Circle) begin to plague the camp, tensions between Pollack and Hoffman come to a boil.  Are the noises that sound like a herd of cattle stampeding through the darkness of the night sky only in Hoffman’s head or are they real?  The fact that Maxwell hears the same noises points to their reality, but Maxwell isn’t the sanest member of the crew.  So how to explain things?  Is it just the stress of being in one of the remotest places in the world causing shared hallucinations that slowly overtake the members of the crew?  Is sour gas–methane gas released by the thawing permafrost–leading to the erratic behavior?  Or is the planet striking back at the human race for infringing on its last, unspoiled patch of land?  Fessenden refuses to offer up a pat explanation to these questions.  This ambiguity only escalates the tension, making the film an almost unbearable exercise in suspense.

Despite being set in one of the most wide-open parts of the world, The Last Winter is a masterpiece of claustrophobic horror.  Fessenden employs the same brilliant technique that John Carpenter used for The Thing of contrasting the flat, white expanse of the outdoors with the cramped quarters that the crew share.  When your only shelter from a harsh environment is a series of rickety buildings filled with people you can’t stand, the world suddenly seems a very small place.  Fessenden further accentuates this uncomfortable situation by giving every character enough unspoken baggage to keep their motivations from ever being fully revealed.  This leads to plenty of shifting alliances among the supporting characters and keeps Hoffman from being a straight-up good guy and Pollack from devolving into a pure villain.

Of course, the acting helps color in the shades of grey that the script only hints at.  LeGros gives Hoffman a nervous, shifty-eyed energy that offsets his frustration about the fact the people don’t seem to care when he shouts warnings of environmental doom.  While Fessenden certainly sides with Hoffman’s view of the situation, Le Gros doesn’t make him an easy hero to root for just because he comes across as so damn twitchy.  Perlman adds enough forceful authority to the blustering Pollack to make the audience look to him as a possible savior for the crew when things go from bad to worse as bodies start dropping.  But perhaps the best performance in the film comes from Britton as the inscrutable Abby.  It’s never clear if she’s sleeping with Hoffman out of convenience, to spite Pollack, or to steer the environmentalist in the direction of getting in line with the company.  She spends so much of the film playing both of the men that she could have quickly become a villain, but instead emerges as the only levelheaded member of the crew due to Britton’s quiet authority.

More than anything else, The Last Winter is a great horror film.  Using remote locations in Iceland to double for Alaska, Fessenden and cinematographer G. Magni Ágústsson are able to create a threatening environment by just framing the characters as insignificant shapes against the overwhelming landscape.  At the same time, the truly creepy score by Jeff Grace and various audio effects layer over each other to lend an apocalyptic feel to the film that is hard to describe as anything other than unnerving.  Each time I watch the film, by the time the trippy climax and resolution play out, I feel like I just witnessed the beginning of the end of the human race.  That’s a hell of an achievement for a low-budget horror flick to pull off.

I’m at a loss to explain why The Last Winter has not gathered more of a following.  Fessenden is a well-liked independent horror guru (he has also directed the terrific films Habit and Wendigo, in addition to producing and acting in several no-budget experimental horror projects), the cast is uniformly great, and the technical aspects of the film are topnotch.  So why was it dumped in a few theaters at the same time that it was offered on-demand?  Is it the fact that the film takes a strong stand against oil drilling in such an environmentally sensitive area?  I know that general audiences have grown weary of political statements in movies, but Fessenden skillfully weaves his arguments into the dialogue and actions that move the horror plot forward.  Yes, it’s a message movie, but Fessenden never lets the message get in the way of the story.

The Last Winter is a film that any classic horror fan should love.  It may take its time building tension, but once all hell breaks loose, it really becomes one of the more powerful films of the last five years.

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