It is pretty intense out here.
— Jim (James LeGros)
“Alaska, the land of black gold.” So named by a promo film for the fictional North Industries, the setting for Larry Fessenden’s new eco-horror film is wide, white, and windy — and not nearly so willing to give up its riches as North Industries presumes. Watching the footage with remote in hand, young Maxwell (Zach Gilford) appears transfixed. Working at a Northern Alaskan base camp for North, Maxwell catches up on the company’s history of plunder and rhetorical flourish. “Working with environmental experts,” the promo promises, North will open a secret well dug two decades ago and so tap heretofore untapped resources. “One step closer to energy independence,” the reel asserts, closing on the company motto: “Trust, risk, results.”
Maxwell clicks off his TV remote, and The Last Winter commences. Combining eco-politics with allusive cinematography, Larry Fessenden’s horror movie isn’t so much scary as it is poignant and provocative. With North Industries cast as the obvious villain, the Arctic environment appears alternately vulnerable and absolutely menacing. Maxwell’s Uncle Ed (Ron Perlman) embodies the company’s most egregious aspects: large and blustery, he arrives at the camp all geared up for making money. He knows he’s right, his can-do energy contrasted with the implacable snowscape all around him, as well as with the weariness of his advance crew: as Ed soon learns, they’ve been waiting for temperatures to drop in order to begin drilling in a formerly protected wilderness preserve, as an unusually warm February has precluded bringing in the necessary equipment. Ed is impatient with such details (“Feels cold as a witch’s boob out here to me!”), and starts imagining alternative ways to get the machines moving.
Aside from the weather, Ed’s most visible obstacles are the “environmental experts” North has installed at the base. Hired to write a company-friendly “impact statement,” the greenies Jim (James LeGros) and Elliot (Jamie Harrold) have instead found problems. “We don’t work for North,” Jim clarifies during one of those group dinners that typify films about isolated groups about to confront unspeakable horrors (see: Alien). “We work for the American people.” Jim submits not only that the project is environmentally unsound, but also that the environment is unsound, or more eerily, as he notes in his journal, “unfamiliar and erratic.”
As Ed presses Jim for a more positive assessment, he also resents him for sleeping with Abby (Connie Britton). His own on-again-off-again squeeze, Abby has apparently found some other sort of solace with the younger man, though her motives and desires never come quite clear. This ambiguity is in part a function of The Last Winter‘s most extraordinary aspect, its suggestion that the Arctic, the environment itself, has a point of view.
On Ed’s first night in camp, he presses the team into a game of football (yes, Ed is manly and Elliot is left with a bloody nose). Afterwards, they retreat to their separate quarters, the camera pulling out and up and then, slowly, pushes back in, peering into the window of each individual, one at a time, lurking to the simultaneously ironic and sensual sound of Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares For Me.” It’s a stunning, long and mobile take, predatory but also patient. It sets the curse for the rest of the film: no matter what the humans believe they’re doing, they are at the mercy of much larger forces.
When morning comes, the petty conflicts continue to prick. Ed worries over what he sees as Abby’s betrayal, framing it in professional terms (“I have no idea how you ended up in the sack with that guy,” he complains, “I consider it a security breach”). In turn, Abby says she’s only managing the threat Jim poses, gaining his “confidence” in order to shape his report. Neither of them knows that Jim has his own agenda and fears, that he’s spent long hours writing in his increasingly incoherent journal, pages and pages of projections. Seeing the “biosphere” is changing, he writes, “I would say vengeful, but nature is indifferent to us. We fight or our survival, not nature’s. There’s a fierceness in the wind I’ve never felt before. Something is being unleashed.”
Indeed, the wind becomes The Last Winter‘s most effective sign of trouble. While rain falls, ice melts, and Jim makes his fervent case against bringing in the heavy vehicles, Ed insists the project continue. Frustrated by the lack of support from his ostensible friends and subordinates (including the resident mystical native, Lee [Pato Hoffman]), he pleads, “Jesus Christ, can I get a little fucking positivity here?” But even he can’t stop the mounting fear. When a team member wanders out into the vast white, the rest devise a plan. But as two men set out on skidoos, the camera doesn’t indulge their suddenly spirited “positivity.” Instead, it hangs back, watching them scoot away into the distant horizon, the very stillness of the frame intimating their imminent failure: they cannot win over the white.
The wind is pervasive, sometimes low and moaning, other times pitched higher, building to some climax that never comes. The film’s literal explanation for nature’s “vengeful” turn is corny, if grand. A set of beastie-ghosts thunder and dissolve before the sensitive “kid,” Maxwell, approximating a returned repressed, fossil fuel sources re-embodied and really mad. Like other horror movies that filter existentialist fears through the Arctic’s isolation (John Carpenter’s The Thing being a kind of ghastly ideal, itself modeled on Howard Hawks’ original), this one emphasizes the effects of endless milieu on an eroding, increasingly desperate community. The metaphor is almost too neat: if the goal is to extract the “black gold,” the sticking point is always the whiteness.
As such terror is harder and harder to articulate, the film is most effective when it abandons dialogue and leaves the camera to do its very spooky work. As men walk into the snow, their shapes recede until they’re almost illegible. As the winter ends and ice melts, the camera remains intensely motionless. Such stillness is insistent, sad, and uncanny, more daunting than any ghost.