I’ve constantly heard “Grizzly Man” in contrast with a train wreck. It’s miserable, but you just have to keep watching for some odd reason, and that’s a dead on summarizing of this film. It’s a train wreck, but a compelling one. Director Werner Herzog explores wildlife enthusiast Timothy Treadwell through much footage of his exploration of woods and commuting with his favorite animals, the bears. All of the clips are morbid reflections of a man content with his surroundings and desperately attempting to unify with nature. The film is morbid because it explores tapes from Treadwell leading up to his inevitable death (Tim’s friend even recalls when he discovered the mangled bodies, or what was left of them). He and his girlfriend were mauled to death and eaten by the same grizzlies he’d grown to love, and though Herzog doesn’t show the deaths, it’s still compelling to watch this man implode.
I’ll admit I didn’t know what to think of Treadwell when the film ended. He presents so many shades, it’s hard to pin down what persona he better fits. Because, in spite of his “love” for the bears, he never really seems to know anything about them, which becomes evident by his nicknames of them, calling one “Mr. Chocolate”, and another “Aunt Melissa”, and he talks to them like children. When one begins approaching him he says in a child-like whisper “No! Don’t do that! Don’t do that!” Treadwell is apparently mentally unstable, like a child playing with matches whom inevitably was burned, and though he and his friends love to refer to him as a wild life expert, he was just a mentally imbalanced man who knew as much about nature as I do. He yells at a fly for buzzing around a baby fox’ carcus, nearly cries spotting what looks to be a dead bee, and makes friends with a Fox unaware that if you feed them they’re your “friends”.
He was a reckless man whose entire life centered around the thought “It’s only a matter of time”. He puts his girlfriend in constant danger, you can constantly hear his girlfriend behind the camera gasping and turning to run while he encourages her to come back. However, one thing you should realize before going in to this documentary is simply that it’s all about as staged as a reality show. While the footage of Timothy Treadwell is very real, for some odd reason Werner Herzog felt the need to fabricate much of what happens here with the interviewees made up of Timothy’s failed actor friends hogging the screen, and sequences so badly acted, it was sometimes comedic. How convenient Timothy’s friend decides to spread his ashes years after his death for the documentary. Did we really need the poorly staged interviews and confrontations, including the one with the watch in which Herzog bestows Tim’s watch to his ex-girlfriend and she marvels at it? What about the inept coroner delivering his lines in a stilted manner and then gazing at the camera that stays on him for fifteen seconds before Herzog cut to another scene?
And the one where Herzog listens to audio of Treadwell’s death and then tells Tim’s ex almost as if channeling Dr. Phil: “You can’t listen to this, you can’t look at the photos”, to which causes an outburst by his ex on cue. If she can’t or hasn’t listened to it, why does she own the audio footage? And the real kicker: “Do you feel like Treadwell’s widow?” It’s far from daring, it’s far from genius or amazing, it’s really just truly mediocre in its ways. If this were truly as daring a documentary as it wanted to be, Herzog would have instead examined how mentally imbalanced Treadwell was, instead of viewing him as someone who sacrificed himself for his love of wildlife. If this were truly daring, it would have asked why his friends didn’t stop Treadwell, why his parents didn’t help him to seek psychological help. While the footage of Treadwell is the disturbing account of a delusional egocentric man not aware of what danger he put himself in, watching Herzog manipulate these elements in to a half fact half fiction documentary really wasn’t as compelling as he wanted.