The Last Winter – Review
As humanity continues to plunder Earth’s resources we have become aware that the planet is a fragile thing. Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter explores the fragility of the planet and how our actions have damaged it. It is a film that delves into our fear of reprisal for our own wrong doings. However unlike a lot of films that deal with environmental issues, The Last Winter doesn’t assume that we know the root causes for our ecological problems. In fact it highlights the fact that we still know very little about mother nature and this in turn leads the film to ask if we can fully understand the consequences of our actions.
Fessenden presents these ideas in a compelling way. It’s interesting what can be achieved with a low budget, an excellent cast and solid camera work. This is a horror film that is elegantly restrained, more concerned with bizarre events than gore. Atmosphere and a sense of dread are Fessenden’s key tools in creating a satisfying horror.
Written by Fessenden and Robert Leaver, The Last Winter breathes new life into a familiar setup. The film depicts an isolated group of people who encounter the full wrath of the natural world they debase. Haunted by eerie visions and thunderous noises before meeting their grisly fates.
Fessenden chooses to open The Last Winter with a promotional video for the oil company that has acquired the rights to drill in a wildlife reserve in Alaska. A voiceover gleefully explains the situation as we are shown maps and images of the site in question. It is a positive message and Fessenden immediately changes the tone and decides to show the setting of his film without the perky corporate spiel. This is where the film draws you in using atmosphere. The camera surveys the frozen landscape, an endless sea of snow and sparse forests. There is a deathly silence that hangs over this part of the world. It is this silence that Fessenden uses to great effect, setting up his world and the tone of the film with great care.
The setting of the film helps to highlight the idea that humanity spoils the natural world. Against this Alaskan sea of white, the characters of our film look like they don’t belong. Black specks on an otherwise perfect white canvas. But his direction also utilises the natural surroundings to show how isolated the characters are. Shots that show characters alone in the vast whiteness are the most obvious way Fessenden depicts the isolation. But the shots of the empty corridors in the outpost they inhabit also highlight this fact. The empty interior shots also show that something is watching (hunting) these characters and Fessenden is clever in his sparse use of these moments. As the camera creeps down the corridors we expect gruesome murders, but more often than not they are merely used to up the tension and keep a constant air of dread present.
But whilst the camera work creates the foundation for the films atmosphere, it is the sound effects that enhance the experience. There is nothing spookier than not knowing what is out there, but hearing something out there. The film really goes to town with this as the characters here unnatural (and natural) noises that they don’t fully understand. And as the film presents these sounds as possibly being hallucinations, the audience are also in the dark as to their cause. It is a simple horror film technique, using sound to scare, and The Last Winter uses it too its full effect.
It isn’t all visual trickery and audio manipulation though. At the heart of the film is an interesting moral quandary and an fantastic cast. Although The Last Winter’s setting and isolated researchers may seem familiar (The Thing, 1982), the actual plot of the film presents a trickier situation. The film’s narrative actively engages in a conflict between business interests and environmentalist. It is a debate that Fessenden allows to bubble in front of the audience, with the ultimate answer to who is right being the point (and warning) of the film. It is a film that has something to say and Fessenden approaches the subject in a sometimes-oblique manner. Especially the film’s climax that is sure to divide audiences. But it is impressive that he attempts to challenge the audience by presenting ideas about nature that focus on its mysteries. This is both a strength and a weakness of the film. On the one hand The Last Winter is more than just a simple horror tale and its depth shows just how useful the horror genre is at highlighting our own fears and concerns. It allows us to face them head on and delivers a cathartic resolution. But Fessenden’s insistence on tackling these ideas might turn off the horror fan that just wants to experience the simple joys of the genre. Thankfully the film has its cake and eats it. It manages to delve deeper into its themes, whilst presenting a simple tale that has chills, gore and scares. A lot of the success of the film’s ability to straggle the line is down to the cast.
James Le Gros heads the cast as scientist Hoffman. His youthful face hides a standout performance that utilises the subtle nuance of emotional rather than melodrama. Hoffman’s character arc is a compelling one and the film even attempts to shake the audiences belief that he is in fact the hero of the story. At his side is Abby (Connie Britton), who becomes his love interest but holds her own within the framework of the film. The best known actor here is Ron Perlman, who plays Pollack. Pollack is essentially the films antagonist and his interplay with Hoffman is excellent. The tension between the two, especially after Pollack realises old flame Abby has feelings for Hoffman, is palatable. They are easily the most entertaining actors in the ensemble. However Pollack is somewhat of a one-dimension villain, with his cigars and attitude. But Pollack’s simple characterisation doesn’t damage the film due to Perlman’s skill as an actor. The cast is rounded out by a talented group of actors who add layers to their characters. Kevin Corrigan and Pato Hoffmann are the standouts in the supporting cast.
Each aspect of the film comes together to create an interesting and entertaining whole. The Last Winter’s message might not convince everyone, but it at least attempts to engage the audience. It is easily the most compelling film to deal with the subject matter. It puts a lot of horror films to shame as the assured direction, sound design and strong performances show how much can be done with a small budget. Fessenden has delivered an intelligently shot film that is creepy, oozes a sense of dread and is utterly fascinating.