There’s a lifelike stillness to Cold Weather which can’t be described with words, and as a film critic that fact perplexes me. Why is it that, given the tools at my disposal, I can’t explain this Sherlock Holmes inspired slacker-mystery to you? I mean, that hopeless summation is about as close as I could get, but even if I detailed the plot and the characters, and analysed the ambitious genre intentions of director Aaron Katz, I still wouldn’t leave you with anything like a decent review, or an honest impression of the film itself, which feels most closely related to the mumblecore movement (currently experimenting within the realm of genre filmmaking; Kelly Reichardt recently tackled the Western in Meek’s Cutoff, 2010, to stunning effect). I suppose the best way to summarize Katz’s film is to quote American critic Roger Ebert, in reference to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), when he described it as being “all genre and no story.” But then, despite its meandering naturalism and devotion to character, Cold Weather does have a story. It kicks in somewhere around the 40 minute mark, and goes like this…
Doug (Cris Lankenau) is a twentysomething college dropout; his study was forensic science, but now he works in an ice factory where he becomes friends with geeky DJ/Star Trek fan Carlos (Raúl Castillo). There’s a beautiful scene where the camera observes them at work, stacking boxes of ice, as they discuss their lives, careers, aspirations and hobbies. For around five minutes the camera just tracks them back and forth as they engage in dialogue which has nothing to do with narrative progression. They just talk, as people talk, and I forgot I was watching actors. Anyway, back to the ‘plot’. Doug is now living with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and their relationship can be strenuous; growing into adulthood, they’re learning both the limitations and strengths of their sibling bond, and becoming comfortable in each other’s space. Doug goes about his new life, with days spent disposing of excess ice and evenings reading fiction on the couch under a dim light. These details seem incidental, but they’re vital, because they inform us of character. Exposition, thankfully, is none existent in the world of Cold Weather. Doug meets up with his ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), who says that she’s in town on business and living in a nearby motel. One night the four gather for a game of poker and get along well. Soon Carlos and Rachel are becoming close. Doug doesn’t mind; he’s still friends with his ex, but romantic feelings have long since evaporated, likely adding to the dulled and moody air of the gorgeous Portland environments, lensed by DoP Andrew Reed.
At this point something happens which suggests a conscious movement into plot, but the film retains its sense of naturalism, always being driven by character. Rachel promises to be at Carlos’ DJ set, but she never shows. Carlos forces Doug to come with him to her motel room, for the purpose of investigation. This may be because Carlos, at the instruction of Doug, has been reading too much Holmes, but it’s more likely that he cares for Rachel’s safety. At the motel the lights are on but nobody’s home – there is, however, a pickup truck outside, and the guy driving it is watching Rachel’s vacated room carefully. Now we’re into the realm of detective fiction, except that Katz’s careful eye makes it seem like detective fact, as we’re rooted deeply into the real word and not once slipping into movie cliché. Sure there are codes to break and cars to be followed, but we’re miles away from even Holmes himself, or at least his incarnation by Basil Rathbone. Frankly, it’s a breath of fresh air.
The score by Keegan DeWitt plays like the most beautiful indie acoustic album in the world. The soft tinkling and plucking of its tones would initially seem more at home in a Juno-esque rom-com (in fact, the main suite reminded me of Alexandre Desplat’s work on Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson, 2009) but that just adds to Cold Weather‘s delightfully covert playfulness. For the most part it’s played completely straight, and at times the film can be deeply moving and quietly disarming. At one point, while on a stakeout, Doug asks Gail if she has any friends. He asks politely, for the people in Cold Weather are kind and empathetic, but she’s still taken aback. A moment of silence and sadness lingers between them, as she realizes that actually she may not have any friends. But there’s a reason. Letting her guard down she confesses to Doug that she’s just got out of a six month relationship. They’d never discussed it before, which tells us a lot about their relationship.
I wonder what the point of a mystery is, because resolution isn’t a factor on Katz’s mind. The film comes to a close on a thrillingly low-ley chase sequence, resulting in Doug and Gail sitting on the top level of a car park. There are so many questions left unanswered, and the fate of everyone is hanging in the balance. Doug rewinds a mixtape and we cut to black. Credits. I didn’t mind that there was no resolution, because A) life doesn’t always provide one, and B) maybe that’s not what the movie is about. What’s it about then, I hear you ask. How should I know, I answer. I can’t even summarize the damn thing…
A perfect little package, and the film looks fantastic. Extras include a commentary with Katz and producers Brendan McFadden and Ben Stambler, a stills gallery, original trailer and an alternate ending, which I like just as much as the existing one. Best of all is a three-minute live rendition of a track from the score, performed by composer Keegan DeWitt and his odd little orchestra. I almost cried with joy, and can’t wait to download the whole thing.
Cold Weather is out on DVD 23rd May 2011.
Director: Aaron Katz
Stars: Cris Lankenau, Raúl Castillo, Robyn Rikoon
Runtime: 96 min