With his Prince Valiant hairdo, perpetual tan and high, whiny voice, Timothy Treadwell seems like a gay surfer based in Malibu. But he actually fits in perfectly with Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, other real-life obsessives whose operatic madness has been chronicled by Werner Herzog.
In this case, Treadwell is a failed actor and raging alcoholic whose first contact with Alaskan grizzlies leads to an epiphany: He goes on the wagon and becomes determined to protect these beasts from outside predators, i.e., humans. So from 1990 until his death in 2003, Treadwell spends every summer in the Alaskan wilderness, living side-by-side with the bears while recording their antics, and his own verbal ramblings, on high-quality videotape.
Here is where Herzog's genius comes in: He has taken 100 hours of video left behind after Treadwell, 46, was killed by grizzlies, edited it down, and added a brilliant voiceover (by Herzog himself) which explores not only the essence of Treadwell's curious quest, but also such subjects as filmmaking, obsession, madness and man's relationship with nature.
Treadwell is nothing if not an interesting case. He's highly articulate, but also seems to be a severe case of arrested development. (He carries his boyhood teddy bear with him into the wilderness.) In his most self-aware moments, Treadwell admits that he finds it difficult to live in civilization, yet also promotes himself as the world's foremost grizzly expert, and actually appears on national TV shows. Treadwell is also a talented filmmaker (Herzog openly admires the framing of his shots) who has left some spectacular footage of the giant bears fighting, playing and rambling around. But he is also consumed with anger at society, and in one scary sequence filled with expletives, rages against the U.S. Park Service, the Alaskan government, and various and sundry animal experts who have questioned his motivation.
In fact, the film makes it very clear that Treadwell's Alaskan presence was completely unnecessary: According to several experts interviewed by Herzog, the grizzly population is stable, and is not endangered by poaching. Moreover, as one native Alaskan states succinctly, Treadwell ignored the most basic rule of human/grizzly interaction: Stay away from them.
Ultimately, Grizzly Man becomes a treatise that compares Treadwell's worldview (that man can live in harmony with nature, and actually become part of it) with Herzog's (that nature is cruel and capricious, and what Treadwell saw as love emanating from the bears is actually just bored indifference). Treadwell, it seems, went into the wilderness to exorcise his own demons, and paid for his quest with his life.
Yet in Herzog's eyes, this tortured, ultimately unstable human lived and died the way he wanted to. And in his attempt to become one with the bears, he was trying to achieve a state of grace. It is this that makes Grizzly Man such an amazing, provocative and ultimately creepy film: the sense of transcendent beauty mixed with absolute, compulsive madness.