The first comparison that leaps to mind watching 2006’s The Last Winter is Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, and between the similarities in subject matter, to say nothing of the title, it is unlikely to be a coincidence. Both films deal with themes of humans cracking under the strain of an environmental crisis; this isn’t just another 2012 or Day After Tomorrow, as the focus is not on the events, which come and go without explanation, but with the effect they have on the human psyche. We pagans know that humans, like it or not, are deeply tied to the well being of Mother Earth, and like Weir’s great film, this one wonders what happens when you know things are not right?
Director and co writer Larry Fessenden has made both documentaries and short subject films, and that style is at work here, especially in a short but very effective bit shot with hand held video by a man who wanders out one night alone. The story concerns a crew sent to begin the preliminary work on an oil field in the Alaskan Tundra; it includes gruff boss Ron Perlman, always a treat, his former gal pal Connie Britton, a pair of local Inuits, and the untried son of a company bigwig who feels the experience would be good for him, as well as serious environmentalist James LeGros and his assistant. Naturally, there is immediate tension between Ron and James, as Ron wants to get the site up and drilling as soon as possible, while James is wary of the company’s promise to keep to strict standards, and also James is now sleeping with Connie, supplanting Ron. Thankfully, this romantic plot is a mere note in greater things, for the site has a host of problems. First, the temperature has been unseasonably warm, and the permafrost is too soft for the roads and structures to be built. As Le Gros tries to tabulate a working model, he is plagued by further unexplainable events; his scientific mind is no more prepared for these phenomena than the others, beset by freakish winds, sounds like hoof beats on the Tundra, dark dreams and visions, as well as bold, black ravens who wander into his tent. The raven is a bad omen for the Inuit, representative of the trickster god and his jests, and there is some indication that evil spirits may be to blame, but the movie is too smart to pin it on any clearly identifiable cause. As things get worse, the weaker ones, the young newbie and the environmentalists assistant are the first to be affected, but even the hard bitten oil crew is not untouched by the creeping dread, the unshakeable feeling that something is wrong.
This doesn’t cover substantially new territory, the isolated location where something freaky happens has been a staple since 50’s sci-fi like The Thing, but it succeeds in an atmosphere of growing unease and fear, and events that leave you guessing: is the crew suffering from gas exposure? Hallucinations? Is evil magic to blame? There is also an intriguing possibility, only hinted at, that the oil itself, frozen under the tundra for eons, and now warming, is invested with some malevolent force, some remnant of the minds of the millions of plants and animals that make it up. In this, I was reminded of the short story Sedalia, by the great David J. Schow, that appeared in an anthology called Razored Saddles back in 1990; it’s an intriguing little barb, and used with good effect, but by its very nature the film doesn’t lean one way or the other…you are left to decide for yourself what is really happening.
The film has been criticized for a rather vague ending, which I confess I find amazing. Seriously, people would rather have everything tied up in a neat little bow, rather than be left with unanswered questions? Complaints about a movie being “vague” usually come from the same people who always want a big rubbery monster to show up and then get conveniently killed, resolving everything in an instantly forgettable climax. Nothing like that here, after accidents, madness and murder have decimated our crew, only one is left to gaze into the heart of what appears to be a looming global catastrophe; if you want simple minded monster movies, go watch the Godzilla remake. But, if you care to exercise that brain behind your eyes, you may find the questions of Last Winter lingering long after explosions and FX are forgotten.