Last Winter, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/14/07 09:05:26

"A pretty decent argument for leaving certain oil fields alone."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: It would be completely wrong of me spoil the thing in "The Last Winter" that made me go from thinking it was a nice little "isolated area (and maybe something else) starts messing with people" horror movie to lapping it up like a ten year old boy whose dreams have just been answered. Since I find myself unable to finish writing this until I let it out, allow me one small tease: G____ d________!

It's a slow burn before we get to them. North Industries has just received Congressional approval to start drilling for oil in Alaska; we're ominously informed that an exploratory well was drilled twenty years ago but abandoned. Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) has just flown out to get things on schedule, only to find his ex-girlfriend Abby Sellers (Connie Britton) sleeping with the head environmental impact monitor, James Hoffman (James LeGros). He's warning of environmental catastrophe, of course, but the rising temperature is making it difficult to build the ice road needed to get equipment out there. Also on the base are Hoffman's assistant Elliot Jenkins (Jamie Harrold), "Motor" the mechanic (Kevin Corrigan), Inuit employees Dawn (Joanne Shenandoah) and Lee (Pato Hoffman), along with Maxwell McKinder (Zach Gilford). Maxwell is starting to get "big-eye" from the endless white landscape anyway, but comes back from a trip to see the old test well even more unsteady.

The first half of the movie is set-up, but writer/director Larry Fessenden spends it more on establishing character relationships than anything else. We get to see which characters get along and which don't, for reasons both personal and political. The opening exposition is a little heavy-handed, but it's the quickest way to get us up to speed on what we need to know without wasting a whole lot of time, and it does kind of prime us to treat it like a horror movie: Aside from the ominous depiction of the station's isolation (which would feel right at home in The Thing), the first half hour could seem like it was laying the groundwork for an "evil ex" movie, an issue-oriented drama, or, (shiver!) some terrible combination of the two. A little foreshadowing that the movie might wind up going in a paranormal direction keeps what happens later from being an unwelcome surprise.

There's an environmental message to the movie, of course, although none of the characters are so crass to suggest that this is what man deserves for attempting to exploit the last pristine place on Earth. Fessenden does make clever use of the "love triangle", though, as Pollack and Hoffman spend a great deal of the movie vying for Abby's support, with Hoffman's romantic ideals pulling her one way while Pollack pulls her the other less through a personal relationship than the fact that he represents her job and other practical things. There are scenes where Pollack literally can't see the things that Hoffman does, and others where we get the impression that Hoffman may be crossing the line from passionate researcher to Gaia-worshiping fanatic. For a movie that does, in a way, boil down to "screwing with mother nature will probably get you killed", it's got a fairly even-handed method of presenting the issue to the audience.

Once things start taking turns for the weird, the movie becomes a lot of fun. Fessenden and his co-writer Robert Leaver have a blast throwing things at the audience with little or no warning; the situation can go from "we're in trouble" to "we're really, really screwed" in a moment. It's not just the danger level that changes, either; the first act gets the audience thinking in terms of this smallish, psychological story, and then, wham!, it's a movie where catastrophic things can happen. Fessenden favors the creepy over the disgusting, although there's a bit of that - ravens apparently find eyeballs delicious, although it's them hanging around and growing in number that is really unnerving. The visual effects are well-done, and the writers show a knack for working in authentic-sounding jargon without making the film incomprehensible. Fessenden also mixes stock footage of oil-related disasters in to highlight what dangerous stuff this is even before the paranormal occurs.

The performances are mostly pretty darn good: Connie Britton's Abby anchors the movie, keeping the other characters from drifting toward extremes, but is capable and relatable in her own right. LeGros hits a nice balance as Hoffman; his tendency toward being sanctimonious plays as a character flaw but not a crippling one. Ron Perlman mostly strikes the right notes as Pollack, although I think both he and the writers have a difficult time making the character a conservative jerk without also making him a total strawman jerk. It's good that they play him more as a guy who worked his way up from actual operations rather than a clueless east-coast exec, so that he has some credibility.

Fessenden doesn't let credibility get in the way of cool too much, though - yeah, he does a good job of making climate change scary without making claims sound wildly exaggerated, but he hasn't just made a message movie - he's made one that has a great deal of dangerous fun with just what depending on oil really is.

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