Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Cold Weather" review

* * * 1/2 / * * * *

Property The Daily Gamecock

Writer/director Aaron Katz’s new feature, “Cold Weather,” was shown out of competition at Columbia’s Indie Grits Film Festival this past Thursday. The mystery/drama, which collected major raves at Austin’s South by Southwest Festival several weeks ago, is an accomplishment of a genre film executed with subtlety.

With a realistic style that pits beautiful shots of Portland’s landscape against slightly out-of-focus human faces struggling to get a grip, it’s an investigation into a seemingly unsolvable mystery and, more importantly, into the nature of communication.

Cris Lankenau stars as Doug, a college dropout who’s gone from studying forensic science to ice factory working, nurturing his detective impulse through Sherlock Holmes fiction as opposed to trying to apply himself. He lives with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and makes friends with co-worker Carlos (Raúl Castillo), and for a while it seems Katz is trying to draw a minute character study.

He indeed does, but when Doug’s ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) comes to visit and then suddenly vanishes, Doug quite literally decides to smoke a pipe and emulate Holmes as best he can, using Carlos and Gail as interchangeable Watsons to track down the missing girl and uncover a potentially more sinister threat.

“Cold Weather” importantly never feels like high drama. Its characters rarely speak more than a few sentences at a time, and even then it’s never very loud. There’s remarkably little said or discussed in this film that would have devolved into a wholly plotted affair under a lesser director.

With Katz, the emotion and the shifts come in slight changes of the camera. Characters look at each other a certain way; they move differently, or lighting adjusts. “Cold Weather” is occasionally very suspenseful, building discomfort through awkward silences and off-key music cues.

As it goes on, however, it becomes almost obvious that the mystery doesn’t matter. This is a story about Doug, specifically about him and his sister. The movie opens with a dinner scene where the two share a meal with their parents and awkwardly trade banter about the state of their lives.

From that point on, they struggle to communicate on the most basic level. A night of cards offers little conversation, and a diversionary trip to the coast has them silently sharing sandwiches instead of engaging with each other.

As they try to figure out exactly what’s going on with Rachel, Doug and Gail open up to each other. They make jokes, they get involved in how the other is behaving and they form a strange partnership, as if they were two friends re-discovering each other after a long absence.

Part of the reason this works so well is because of Trieste Kelly Dunn, an actress who makes Gail fully lived-in, a woman trying to get by as best she can. Her modest accomplishments play well against Doug’s angst, and Lankenau hits his stunted ambition with full force.

“Cold Weather” is a surprising look inside the detective film, and its deliberately ambiguous conclusion feels so remarkably observed, tilting the film from outward investigation to interpersonal connection. It’s a movie about how external forces help re-ignite internal fires.
The film seems to start at a simmer and stay there the whole time, but it’s not until well after the end credits that one realizes Aaron Katz actually does remarkable shifts in character and emotion with how he incorporates music and visual space.

“Cold Weather” almost seems like a trick, an elusive mystery where the characters dig deeper and deeper while the plot makes less and less sense. But in the best tradition of suspense, it’s not about the plot. It’s what the plot means to those involved.

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