The call of the wild is routed through the switchboard of gorgeous filmmaking in “The Last Trapper,” a docu-style reenactment of several seasons in the life of Canadian trapper Norman Winther. Vet extreme explorer and nature filmer Nicolas Vanier uses the crisp clean air and phenomenal light of the Canadian Yukon to fill the widescreen frame with scenery that will make many an urban viewer long to strap on snowshoes and live off the land with formidable grizzlies, handsome wolves, majestic moose and cute beavers. Pic opened strongly in Gaul mid-December, in a wide 500-print release.
Crinkly-faced Norman was born in the Rockies fiftysomething years ago and, via voice-over, speaks in plain language of how much he loves the healthy outdoor life of hunting and trapping that has always provided his livelihood. But logging operations, which destroy vital habitat, are making it increasingly difficult to find the animals whose pelts he sells in the nearest town, Dawson.
With its unpaved, dirt main street, classic saloon (including three women in petticoats doing the can-can) and general store, Dawson is a five-to-seven day trip by horse or dog sled from Norman’s cozy log cabin. He shares his cabin with his companion of 15 years, an Indian woman whose complicity with him and nature is quietly obvious.
Because his needs and pleasures are so basic, Norman’s sorrow is heartbreaking when his lead husky, Nanook, is hit by a car in Dawson. A merchant gives him a 10-month-old racing pup, Apache, whom Norman is reluctant to believe will ever be a good sled dog. But Norman’s Indian companion thinks Apache has potential and, sure enough, when Norman’s sled falls through the ice while crossing a quasi-frozen lake, it’s young Apache who saves his life.
Slightly stiff but cumulatively endearing narration is a sort of Wilderness Survival 101 (“people should never have lost contact with nature”; “take away but don’t endanger — that’s the trapper’s motto”) that would be tiresome were it not illustrated with such breathtaking natural settings. Whether maneuvering his canoe through warm-weather canyons where bears catch fish in their teeth, or laying traps in unfamiliar snow-covered terrain at 40 degrees below zero, Norman radiates an appealing can-do mixture of manliness and sensitivity.
The prospect of having to give up the wilderness for the city — maybe next year, maybe the year after — hangs over Norman’s head. Although the loggers are only mentioned once or twice, viewers soon want to wag their fingers at the unseen industrial goons who dare to upset the symbiosis at work in the dwindling wild.
Varied score by Krishna Levy is as pleasing as the imagery. Closing credits imply that the Northern Lights may have been given an artificial boost in post-production, but it’s not every film that boasts a “sub-zero safety consultant.”