After watching mankind wreck her handiwork, Mother Nature’s vengeance shifts from global-warming-slow to horror-movie-swift in “The Last Winter.” Most physically expansive feature to date by Larry Fessenden sports the virtues of his prior efforts (“Habit,” “Wendigo”), which are also their commercial limitations — i.e. an emphasis on character dynamics, slow-burning tension and offbeat narrative rather than the usual genre checklist of monster sightings, false scares and gory deaths. U.S.-Iceland co-prod is an imperfect but compelling thriller that will probably fare best in ancillary — a pity, since its wide-open-space compositions cry for the bigscreen.
Stark Alaskan setting (exteriors were shot both there and in Iceland) and paranoid atmosphere recall “The Thing,” as a crew similarly shacked up in blandly functional, claustrophobic live-work quarters gradually come undone in the face of an unknown, largely unseen enemy.
In this case, they’re a team sent by North Industries to prepare for oil extraction from the hitherto protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Desperate for “energy independence,” the government is clearly entwined with corporate interests. But to put a good face on things they’ve allowed two free-agent “Greenies” — esteemed ecological watchdog/author James Hoffman (James Le Gros) and his assistant Elliot (Jamie Harrold) — to do a environmental impact study before drilling begins.
The principled James isn’t about to just let commerce go its merry way. He was at the Kuwaiti oil fires (glimpsed utilizing clips from Werner Herzog’s “Lessons of Darkness”) and the Exxon Valdez spill, and fears consequences at least as disastrous here — already, unseasonably warm temperatures are creating logistical problems, and there are signs that the permafrost is melting.
His suspicions that there is seriously “something off” are treated as wacko and a needless obstacle by macho, hot-tempered team leader Pollock (Ron Perlman), who’s just returned from five weeks at corporate headquarters. Nor is Pollock’s mood lightened by discovering that in his absence, second-in-command Abby (Connie Britton) has shifted her warm bodily allegiance from his bed to James’.
Hoffman’s foreboding and Pollock’s obstinacy each gain in collision-ready force as a series of mystifying events occur. Communication and power go haywire, cutting the inhabitants off from outside help.
Young intern Maxwell (Zachary Gilford) goes missing, and when he is found at the site of a 20-year-old test drilling, he has been traumatized to near-catatonia by some encounter he can’t articulate. His freak-out presages a series of illogical behaviors, inexplicable health problems and disturbing accidents that start whittling the station’s human population down.
Horror fans used to more conventional material may find buildup too slow, supernatural aspects too restrained, and the final payoff too vague and not ghastly enough. (Most harrowing scenes are realistic perils, like one figure’s sudden plunge through thin ice into freezing waters.) But “Last Winter” succeeds precisely where most contempo horror films cut corners, in creating credible characters whose fate we come to dread amidst situations that reel out of control degree by methodical degree.
G. Magni Agustsson’s lensing is a great assist, as it makes the arctic landscape a still, merciless menace toward the frail intruders’ well-being. Music is used very sparingly, with astute wider deployment of Anton Sanko’s ambient soundscapes.
Solid cast is headlined by Perlman in assertive familiar form as a bullying but not unsympathetic he-man. But burden of conviction here falls on the always excellent Le Gros, who in a rare lead registers all the intelligent unease that the increasingly far-fetched tale needs for suspension of viewer disbelief.