In this winter of 1,000 springs (2006), it’s heartening to visit the true North and be treated to the spectacular and incredible beauty of largely pristine nature. Snow without salt, rivers without tires, forests without discarded roll-up-the-rim cups—surely this is a dream?
Director/writer Nicolas Vanier has fashioned a beautiful feature but gets snared in his attempt to instill bits of drama where an old-fashioned documentary would make his points with more conviction. Following trapper-extraordinaire Norman Winther as he plies his craft shooting rapids, building a cabin and mushing his dogs is the ideal conceit for portraying an endangered way of life and the ravages of modern times; having the real-life participants utter such foreign (to them) dialogue as “that machine [snowmobile] is a poor companion,” and “I don’t just admire it, I’m a part of it” gnaws away at the credibility of the project as surely as beavers topple trees. The late-frame inclusion of the World Wildlife Federation’s logo is, inadvertently, the perfect metaphor for mankind’s incursion into this rarefied world.
Thanks goodness for the animals. The real stars are the huskies led by Nanook then later, Apache. Old Blue Eyes has nothing on these expertly trained and handled canines that fill the screen with their courage, cunning and enthusiasm—at risk more from the streets of Dawson City than the voracious packs of wolves that “never attack man.”
Cinematographer Thierry Machado provides the film’s best moments. From eagles soaring, to the ethereal lime of the Northern Lights to a hilarious/heartening shot of the “rabbit who got away,” the plodding plot points are soon forgotten while the expectation of more magical frames whets the appetite of the eye. The hills are alive with yellows and greens of real forests. Unforgettable is the trek through a canyon—especially when the point of view cuts from the heavens to the ground. Echoes of Bill Mason’s Song of the Paddle Nahanni wash through memory in concert with many of these wide-screen-loving shots. The outtakes would probably make a feature on their own. Using an editor of Yves Chaput’s skill, would guarantee a magnificent sequel.
Krishna Levy’s score keeps the ears fully engaged. With deft touches such as cueing a French horn after the moose call has faded, and ensuring the tinder-dry strings are in step with Winther’s stride, the film often moves at one with its subjects. Leonard Cohen’s gravely tone in “By The Rivers Dark,” is the perfect foil to the sheen of Levy’s orchestration.
Unlike the self-centred look and tone of Grizzly Man (cross-reference below) The Last Trapper tries to score most of its points through modest pronouncements (“Take away [what is needed] but don’t endanger”) and ironic humour (“[Imagine] white man selling fur to an Indian”). But a few wordless scenes of the current reality of pollution, over-harvesting of resources and ravages of substance addiction would add much-needed contrast and punch to this otherwise compelling peek into the dying art of self-reliance. JWR