"This is the last winter. Total collapse. Hope dies." So writes an environmental researcher in a previously untouched part of Alaskan wilderness now being opened up for oil exploration in Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter. Using the doomsaying of climate change prognosticators as an effectively menacing backdrop, more so even than the bleak chill of the Alaskan tundra, Fessenden's film drops a knot of oil workers into an isolated research station and watches what happens as everyone realizes that something inexplicable is happening all around them. It's a horror film that sneaks up on you with an effectively unsettling and brooding atmosphere before unleashing an apocalyptic fury.
Clearly drawing heavily on films like John Carpenter's The Thing as inspiration, Fessenden builds his characters from the ground up before hurling them to the wolves. He's helped by a cast that's sharp as a tack, particularly the roaring and bear-like Ron Perlman as Ed Pollack, an oil company operative gung-ho on getting machinery up to their station as quick as possible, by any means necessary, and screw the environment. Facing him are a couple of "green flags" -- one of whom is the gloomy notebook scribbler, scientist James Hoffman, played close to the vest by the always reliable James LeGros -- environmental do-gooders hired by the company as sort of eco-fig leaves whom they want to pressure to sign off on impact statements so the drilling can begin. In between are Abby Sellers (Connie Britton), a tough-as-nails type caught in a love triangle, the dazed and confused mechanic Motor (Kevin Corrigan, nailing it), and their Native American cook Dawn Russell (singer Joanne Shenandoah).
By the time Pollack shows up at the station in a whirl of bluster and profanity, things have already started to deteriorate. Hoffman's readings have been all over the charts, showing not just that the permafrost is melting but there's a frightening unpredictability in the weather. The company boss's kid, fresh-faced Maxwell McKinder (Zach Gilford) is already starting to lose it in the great white nothingness, seeing things that shouldn't be there. Pollack's flails between sucking up to Maxwell, trying to get in good with the boss, and raging at Hoffman both for what he sees as namby-pamby greenie hand-wringing (he says, in essence, "America wants us to drill for this oil!") and also for stealing his former girlfriend, Abby. As Hoffman's concerns shift from cynical foreboding that the rape of this pristine wilderness is a fait accompli to a more generalized fright about the land itself being what's wrong ("something up here is off"), a general low-level psychosis begins to take root amongst the crew, and things quickly go from bad to deadly.
The idea of an environmental horror film isn't necessarily new, but it is executed here with an admirable precision and economy, not to mention relevance (permafrost that's been frozen for thousands of years is in fact melting in Alaska and Canada at a shocking rate as you read this). While the script indulges in a few rote arguments between the pro- and anti-oil sides, it mostly leaves the obvious behind. Stuck up in their lonely huts (which Fessenden's camera is constantly circling around, as though hunting), it isn't hard for even these hard-bitten oil workers to start feeling that maybe the earth is getting tired of humanity and is ready to strike back. As one of them points out, since oil is actually composed of dead animals and plants, that makes them grave robbers in a sense. It's at moments like that when the film's inspiration turns from The Thing to The Birds.
Less a horror film than a creeper, The Last Winter takes a smart and terrifying scenario and plays it out to the logical extreme, with a climax that's all the more disturbing for its minimalism that leaves all too much to the imagination.