ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD
directed by Werner Herzog
starring Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Junior
written and directed by Courtney Hunt
by Walter Chaw It's a source of endless delight for me that Werner Herzog--the man who refers to nature as "obscene"--has become known of late for delivering mordant, mildly condescending nature documentaries. His Grizzly Man is a modern classic of Bavarian madness--now find Herzog in Antarctica, declaring at regular intervals in Encounters at the End of the World that "something doesn't seem right" with a perfectly-preserved hut used by Shackleton a hundred years ago, or with a demented penguin making its way to certain doom on an inexplicable march to the inland. With an opening that has Herzog immodestly laying out his mission statement as wishing to discover, in a roundabout way, why it is that men are obsessed with riding their metaphorical steeds into the wild unknowns, he illustrates the conundrum with a sideswipe at mankind, equating us with ants that hold other insect species as "slaves" and wondering why chimps, despite their intellectual sophistication, decline to domesticate goats to ride them on their own existential pursuits.
Completely cross-eyed badger-shit insane though it is from conception to execution, there are moments of such brain-destroying beauty in the picture that it cements Herzog as, above even Errol Morris, the most interesting--and far and away the most transparent--documentary filmmaker working today. His interest in the crazy people who gravitate to the planet's Southern pole (himself included by implication), huddling together in a freakshow of social dysfunctions and wild-eyed blue-sky ventures, pulls a confession from, among others, a lonely welder with a genetic mutation that links him to the ruling family of an ancient civilization. When the man confides that he's had a hard time in the great big world out there, there's a pregnant pause, after which he shows us his hands in a display of...pride? Defiance? Later, Herzog interviews a penguin expert and asks him about penguin homosexuality, rape, and insanity--then it's onto a team of sea lion researchers who declare that throwing a bag over an animal's head doesn't bother the beasts in the slightest, at odds with Herzog's deadpan camera capturing the unfortunate lions' discomfited bellows.
Profitable by itself, Encounters at the End of the World gains real momentum when each encounter is taken as a reflection of the conflict between Herzog's intellectual skepticism and his spiritual hunger. A physicist sending a balloon into the atmosphere in search of non-physical, nay, metaphysical elements instrumental in theory to the creation and differentiation of the universe crystallizes Herzog's auteurism from the Aztec creation story of his Aguirre all the way through to the mysteries of connection and need for discovery that informs his The White Diamond. Here's the filmmaker as godhead and immaculate truth-finder--and with its transitional phrases set in Prufrock's underwater chambers, scored at times by the otherworldly call of sea lions (something like a Theremin combined with a kid making rocket noises), the loveliness of the piece derives from this thought that at the bottom of all the arched eyebrows and affected looniness is a desperation for communion with the world. Beauty is truth, indeed. Little surprise that the nature Herzog wrestles to a draw is a frozen desert scarred by man's intrusion, dotted with open magma pits and bottomless crevasses, populated by the contents of a lunatic asylum, and promising at every step in our climate-change the self-inflicted end of man's time on this planet. For everything in the picture that astonishes and gratifies, the one image that sticks with me, unexpectedly, is of a British vulcanologist with a shock of curly red hair, standing in tweed on the rim of a volcano taking pictures as it belches up the occasional magma ball, using a camera designed for prison riots.
Also cast in a frozen wasteland, hyphenate Courtney Hunt's feature debut Frozen River aspires to the same eloquence in forging a conversation between the interior and exterior worlds, drawing a quick sketch of poverty and solipsism that evolves into a giant campfire hug of teaching the world to sing or some such facile bullshit. More's the shame that it's all tattered sackcloth for a performance by veteran character actress Melissa Leo so ferocious and vulnerable that it ranks instantly among the best of the year. Ray (Leo) is a trailer-park mama living on the New York-Canadian border, banking paychecks from the Yankee Dollar store and searching for a way to explain to her two kids that Daddy disappeared a few days before Christmas with the money they were saving for an upgrade to a doublewide. A litany of clichés is deadening no matter how true, and here we find Ray meeting up with Mohawk trailer-park mama Lila (Misty Upham) and getting embroiled in a human smuggling operation that allows Ray to opine on the kinds of troubles that would actually inspire reasonable people to stow away in the back of a beaten-down relic from Detroit to escape into a world of Yankee Dollars and Rent-To-Own rackets.
Status isn't the topic of the film, though--it's how poverty narrows perception into a pinhole that only opens once Ray discovers the tatters of her humanism in the plights of others, especially Lila and her plot-contrived separation from her year-old tot. Transcending it all is Leo, making a silk purse from Hunt's screenplay, inhabiting her role such that it's possible to get through her a real feeling for what it's like to not be able to feed your children, much less provide a Christmas for them in a society 100% focused on material wealth. This cultural obsession with objects, however, isn't Hunt's focus, either--she squanders the potential in Frozen River's scenario for acid social commentary in favour of saccharine resolutions and a ridiculous series of events that ends in the suggestion that a real live Yuletide miracle has cast the scales from Ray and Lila's eyes. Not helping is an epilogue that suggests that money can, in fact, buy you love. Originally published: August 1, 2008.