Nature's way

Two veteran directors examine the violence within and without

Some days you eat the bear; some days the bear eats you.

It's a lesson laid out with chilling precision in Grizzly Man, the bizarre tale of an environmentalist and self-appointed protector of wildlife named Timothy Treadwell, who lived off and on for 13 years among the bears in remote areas of Alaska. Toward the end of the 13th year, Treadwell and his girlfriend died at the fangs and claws of one of his beloved grizzlies.

Grizzly Man is the remarkable new film by that old cosmic absurdist Werner Herzog, who seems to have found a perfect subject in Treadwell's life and death. A visionary filmmaker who has long chronicled the heights and depths of human endeavor, first through invented stories like Aguirre, The Wrath of God and most recently through non-fiction films, Herzog has always been drawn to obsessives and holy fools like Treadwell. In Fitzcarraldo, Klaus Kinski's character struggled with the impossible task of hauling a gigantic boat over an Amazonian mountain. In Grizzly Man, Treadwell attempts to bond with the unbondable, nobly and foolishly trying to cross some invisible border between man and animal. For Herzog, the fictional character and the real-life one are two sides of the same coin, and he's equally enamored of — and horrified by — both.

Treadwell was a bundle of contradictions, an insecure, aging nature boy and an overbearing (pun unavoidable), egomaniacal clown — think Queer Eye's Carson Kressley crossed with John Denver — who manufactured his own larger-than-life image and religiously committed it to videotape in hundreds of hours of self-shot footage. Herzog incorporates many of these images into Grizzly Man, sometimes commenting upon them (in his amusingly foreboding German accent) as a way of shaping and expanding the story but often simply letting Treadwell's words and actions speak for themselves.

We see Treadwell acting out in front of the camera, creating the kooky crusader persona that eventually allowed him to become something of a minor celebrity in later years, with an appearance or two on Letterman under his belt. Interspersed are Herzog's interviews with various friends, family members and bystanders, some of whom see Treadwell as a martyr, others who consider him a disingenuous idiot who got what he deserved. One observer suggests that the only reason the bears put up with him for as long as they did was because they thought he was "mentally retarded."

Herzog maintains a distance from his subject but he also identifies strongly with him, particularly in Treadwell's need to pick up a camera and compulsively document everything. As Treadwell's footage and Grizzly Man reach their final, inevitable stages, Treadwell begins to seem increasingly a victim of his own self-invented persona, and Herzog directs our attention to what he perceives as the actor taking over from the filmmaker. In the end, Herzog completes Treadwell's film, not as the dead man would have made it, but as it needed to be made, offering up Grizzly Man as a gift from one filmmaker to another.

Herzog's movie isn't the only one opening this week that delves into the complications of messing with Mother Nature. David Cronenberg's A History of Violence also turns up in local theaters, and it's nice to see a pair of our favorite eccentric auteurs discovering fresh wrinkles in familiar turf.

The nature being messed with in A History of Violence is the one lurking within our own bad selves, and Cronenberg makes it abundantly clear that this is not something to be taken lightly. Cronenberg's aptly titled film is all about owning up to what's Nasty, Brutish and Short, a description that turns out to apply not just to nature but the specific ways that physical and psychic violence suddenly rear their heads.

The movie focuses on the happy household of the Stall family, an all-American clan headed up by Tom (Viggo Mortensen) and loving wife Edie (Maria Bello), who considers him "the best man I've ever known." The Stalls live in a postcard-perfect small town where everybody eats pie and one sheriff is all that's required to keep order. Cronenberg lets us know from the start that creepy-crawly stuff is slithering just under the surface. Chaos is just a shot away.

The movie's calm is soon enough shattered by an act of extreme violence that turns Tom into a local hero. With fame comes unwanted attention, though, in the form of a gaggle of unsavory out-of-towners (headed by a marvelously ominous Ed Harris) claiming that Tom is not the person he says he is.

A History of Violence is a tough movie to talk about without giving away crucial plot twists, but suffice to say that the film underlines the notion of violence as a transforming phenomenon, as alluring as it is appalling. It dwells on the rage submerged in even the meekest of souls and eventually focuses on a family bonding over blood.

For a movie that's all about excess, History is a curiously simple and stripped-down effort, with few of the fantastic flourishes that usually characterize a Cronenberg creation. It's only in the last act that the film turns itself inside out and becomes a "real" Cronenberg movie, calling into question everything that's come before and daring us to guess where it's going next.

In the end, it may feel a little like Cronenberg's giving us his version of an action movie, but don't go expecting Lethal Weapon. All History ultimately has in common with a Mel Gibson movie is a beginning, a middle and an end. In Cronenberg's version, we're all just a bunch of cozy little killers, and even though the heroes are left standing in the end, no one gets out alive.

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