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September 15, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #89 - The Last Winter

Global Warming is one of those things - like reality TV and/or politics - that the media loves and I don't really get.  I guess it means that the globe is getting warmer (duh!), but I don't know why that's such a bad thing.  Top notch horror producer and artful director Larry Fessenden seems to have a much better understanding of this concept than I do, or at least that's what I assume after watching The Last Winter, an intelligent psychological chiller that sends us into the far north and makes global warming a real force that is threatening a small group of researchers...and possibly the rest of the planet.
Set at an oil company camp in the northern regions of Alaska that hosted 30 Days of Night's vampires, The Last Winter is one of those movies that seems like it could just be a normal drama about life in the north for much of the film.  But there's something ominous from scene one, which is manifested primarily through the young, scared Maxwell McKinder - played by Friday Night Lights' Zach Gilford (who I refuse to acknowledge as anything but Matt Saracen, QB1) - who we can immediately tell knows more than we do.  A scene near the end of the first act shows us Maxwell wandering out into the tundra and staring off into the distance, where he sees something unnatural that we can't really understand.
Around Saracen/Gilford's character, everyone is going about business as usual.  Oil company bigwig Ed Pollack (played by Ron Friggin' Perlman!) is pushing to keep everything "on schedule" while scientist James Hoffman (James Le Gros, who later led the Fessenden produced Bitter Feast) thinks there's something weird going on with the weather.  The rest of the crew, which is grounded by Abby (Connie Britton, also of Friday Night Lights!), doesn't seem to know what to do; leading to rising tension that parallels the abnormally high temperatures.
The tensions rise, but they do so slowly.  This allows Fessenden and his cast to use the scenery (or lack thereof) around them to really hammer home the point that these secluded folks are at the mercy of nature.  But while they all debate how to deal with oil related problems and the love triangle that causes tensions between the top billed characters, Maxwell McKinder continues to become more distant from the group and more concerned with what he knows about what's going on around them.  Those of us who know we're watching a horror movie will probably be scratching our heads and wondering why no one else is really talking to this kid about this all, but his erratic behavior is mostly met with confusion by the crew around him.
The only explanation that any of the crew can come up with is an old Inuit tale of spirits that protect the Earth, which leads to the plot developments that a) push the film toward its climax and b) might alienate some viewers.  The developments tie into the ideas of Fessenden's preceding film, the similarly slow and character-driven Wendigo, but also involve some CGI that has taken some viewers out of the film.  The Last Winter goes from "grounded in human emotions" to "hey, this got really supernatural and I need to suspend some disbelief" very quickly in the middle of the film, and I can see why some might feel the film loses its edge at this point.
I think there's still a lot of good going on once the stuff hits the fan and the spiritual side of The Last Winter rears it's CGI head.  LeGros and Perlman powerhouse their way through several scenes as they try to make peace with what's going on, which leaves Britton's Abby to deal with the chaos that ensues at the base camp.  There's a fantastically unsettling series of events that plays out when Abby finds that one of the members of the crew has (for lack of a better word) snapped, and the otherwise slow film starts to show us a lot of things in small amounts of time as the characters experience the changes around them.  And when the film reaches a climactic scene for each character, there are plenty of questions left for the viewer to ponder.
Folks who like to have everything wrapped up in a nice neat package might not find The Last Winter (or Fessenden's other directorial efforts like Wendigo and Habit) to be their cup of tea, but I dig the heck out of his willingness to focus less on scares and more on people.  That's what I take away from The Last Winter. I might not understand what global warming and native american spirits are all about, but the film's final scene makes my jaw drop anyway - because I'm human too and I know what terror feels like.


Emily Louise Church said...

Wow, this actually looks pretty good. Might have to put it on the to-watch list!

Will Errickson said...

Yeah, I dug this one too! I also can only refer to Gilford as Matt Saracen, heh.

R.D. Penning said...

I am a huge Larry fan, but this one felt very bland for me. I have watched it a couple times since my first viewing, but still hasn't really risen above my initial review. Not a bad movie, but not great either.

The Mike said...

Thanks all!

Emily - Definitely recommended, just beware the CGI!

Will - I just recently got through FNL, and I couldn't help spending the whole movie going "This reminds of Saracen in this episode..." Added to the charm of this rewatch. :)

Russ - I think this is probably my least favorite of the three Fessenden directed flicks I mentioned, and I see some of the flaws. But I'll take his brand of human horror even in a muted form.

R.D. Penning said...

Yeah... I was just recently introduced to Larry's work(last year and a half). Jeremiah Kipp, who directed my film, worked with him on I Sell The Dead. He had so many good things to say, and I Sell The Dead was amazing! I look forward to seeing more from Larry in the future. I know he has a bunch of stuff coming out.