Cold Comfort: Larry Fessenden’s “The Last Winter”

In our search for optimal ways to use natural resources, human beings have discovered subtle connections between the ecosphere, the raw materials comprising our world, and the fate of our own species. The fragility of this planet’s living environment was a concept all but undreamt a mere century ago, when the Earth promised to supply an endless stream of resources for our use. Now, horrific possibilities beckon to us in the shape of global ecological catastrophes. Recent big-tent disaster movies such as The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 have taken these threats and turned them into cartoonish spectacles of special effects and easily parsed danger. The sight of a ruined, post-catastrophic landscape has of course been a common trope in science fiction for decades, and films such as The Road and The Book of Eli explore familiar ground. Floods, earthquakes, a land parched of water: these may seem to be potent figurations of the doom which may be coming to our little world, but in their extremity they also offer a false consolation of sorts. “Whatever is coming,” these movies seem to say, “we will understand it, even be able to predict it, though we may be able to do nothing to stop the process.”[1] We may ineradicably alter our world for the worse, but by gum we will know what hits us. Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter takes a different approach, one predicated on the knowledge that we still know so little about the forces which gave birth to our species, those which (as of yet) still sustain it. How can we assume we will understand the consequences of our actions, this film seems to ask, when we have only recently begun to understand that there will be (indeed already are) consequences at all? In a world (to borrow that famous, over-used phrase of the movie-trailer business) increasingly rocked by tsunamis, droughts, earthquakes, and other natural disasters which may have direct ties to our own actions, we need stories such as The Last Winter. We need to be reminded that actions have consequences and some of those consequences may not only be unintended, they may also be inexplicable.

The Last Winter opens with a cheery promotional video for the KIK Corporation, an oil company which has recently secured the right to drill in a wildlife preserve in the snowy depths of Alaska. A confident voice explains this situation over footage of industrial works, maps and the image of a site where the oil was discovered, jauntily describing the venture as one taken in concert with the local Native population and overseen by environmentalists. Immediately afterwards, we are given a view of this place without the optimistic commentary. Silence hangs over this frozen landscape, miles of snow and sparse forests which (preceded by corporate blather) seem to pose a quiet challenge to the breezy ambitions of humankind. The Last Winter processes this material, which may have otherwise served as the grist for a relevant (if sleepy) documentary, through the lens of the fantastic. It does so without forsaking the troubling questions this sort of work raises and manages to raise other, less easily resolved issues in the process.

Fessenden’s first breakthrough in genre film was the more intimate Wendigo, a simpler horror tale about the mythical beast of Native American lore. The director has also made a name for himself as what one might describe as a perennial cameo actor, particularly well known for how ill-fated his characters prove to be. He played such a role in the classic-in-the-making Session 9, Neil Jordan’s The Brave One and, in a part so quick one can easily miss it, in The Last Winter as well. This film is more ambitious than his first, boasting a talented cast, a more complex story and some truly stunning landscapes. The movies do, however, share some themes in common. Wintery settings, conflicted protagonists and an interest in Native American culture appear in both, but The Last Winter develops its themes more directly.

While The Last Winter’s setting (the frigid and lonely plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) and isolated cast of researchers may bring to mind The Thing, this movie presents a trickier situation. Fessenden takes some risks in the presentation of this film’s horrors: not only does the movie engage with a contentious debate plenty of his viewers will not wish to see addressed, he does so in a sometimes oblique, sometimes argumentative manner. The audience is quickly thrust into the midst of an ongoing conflict between business interests and the concerns of environmentalists. James LeGroff stars as James Hoffman, an environmentalist working to assure this new oil well will not negatively impact the mostly untouched landscape. The always-entertaining Ron Perlman, here playing gruff oilman Ed Pollack, runs the station. Kevin Corrigan, best known, perhaps, as Fringe’s mysterious Sam Weiss as well as roles in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and the brilliant sitcom Community, also makes a welcome appearance as the mechanic, Motor. The simmering tensions between Pollack and Hoffman are not only political in nature: Pollack has been nursing an attraction for fellow researcher Sellers (Connie Britton of American Horror Story fame) for some time, and he is dismayed to find she has become the environmentalist’s lover. When Hoffman poses a threat to Pollack’s plans for drilling[2] for oil, their enmity is locked firmly in place. Between these personal resentments and arguments over just how far nature can be pushed before it pushes back, the researchers are slow to notice a more insidious danger creeping up on them.

Starting with what are either mild hallucinations or visions of some strange and dark force (or, possibly, both), and proceeding toward delirium, suicide and violence, the research station is beset by problems their carefully wrought plans and rationalizations collapse before. The endless miles of whiteness around them present a perfect palette to go mad by, as Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe argued years ago. Is this blank landscape driving them insane, or are their troubles a harbinger of something far worse than mental collapse? Fessenden complicates the situation by giving us cause to doubt the sanity of most everyone involved. Many of them offer explanations, but as the body count rises every solution begins to look too simplistic. It seems to be a rule in movies (particularly in the science fiction and horror genres) that “The environmentalist, like the psychic, is always right.”[3] Even Hoffman’s naturalistic theory, however, proves inadequate to explain what is happening to them. As Hoffman, Sellers, Pollack and everyone else trapped in this bleak yet curiously beautiful land will discover, the land from which they have wrested a living may hold mysteries with which their rational philosophies (whether economically or ecologically driven) are not coped to deal.

The Last Winter nicely mixes the foreboding presence of those white, silent surroundings with the noisy conflicts of human beings. Sudden scares are here largely restrained in favor of weird, inexplicable events. Fessenden keeps his audience off balance by not allowing these disturbing events to coagulate around an easily foreseeable agent or situation. Instead, events unfold according to a strange logic all their own. Characters, well known to one another, reveal unsuspected cracks in their psyches. Catastrophe springs upon the researchers at the moment they think their salvation is at hand. The location of one body even serves as something like a “locked room” mystery, a mystery which is explained only partially in the film’s finale. This finale, by the way, opens onto a larger danger than that the researchers have had to face, but it does not do so gratuitously. Although many of the dangers this film considers find their genesis in the outside world, they are also shaped by what the characters bring with them. Had the movie employed a more traditional “stalk and kill” method to destroy its characters, it would have left a less ambiguous impression than it does and this would have been a loss. The complex nature of the threat these researchers face is (as will become obvious after all those discussions about the impact of the business of drilling for oil) bound up with the interactions of our species and our physical world.

If the movie has a flaw, it is that its message is hammered home a little too directly. This “lesson” is at some variance with the intelligent, spiritually complex manner in which The Last Winter unfolds its catastrophes. A slightly more oblique approach to the material may have had greater impact, leaving the audience to make the realizations some of Fessenden’s characters state so baldly. As the current, disturbing trend in climate-change denial (and its implicit rejection of the validity of scientific research) indicates, however, the direct approach may be what is necessary. The Last Winter will most likely not convince anyone of the dangers of environmental catastrophe, but it is one of the better genre pieces on the subject. In addition to careful direction and strong performances, it also presents a psycho-spiritual dimension to our misuse of nature all but entirely unexplored by most movies based on this theme. The various fates met by these researchers, for instance, suggest a more subtle message than one of simple doom-saying. What this viewer was left with, at the end of The Last Winter, was a sense of having brought near something elementally numinous, as well as an appreciation for the gifts of Larry Fessenden and his talented cast.

[1] The above mentioned movies, I should note, as well as most of the others concerning these bleak possibilities, end more or less happily, reassuring viewers that the species will soldier on, come nuclear devastation or high-water.

[2] I will resist the obvious Freudian reading of this confluence of conflicts. I will.

[3] Ghostbusters provides one of the only significant exceptions I can recall for the first half of this rule.