Cold Pursuit: Very Far Through the Snow, by David Bax
Opening with a jocular quote on the screen (Oscar Wilde’s “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go”) and plucky guitar music before going on to showcase nearly as much blood as it does snow, Hans Petter Moland’s Cold Pursuit (a remake of his own Norwegian original, In Order of Disappearance) may invite comparisons to Antonia Bird’s similarly frostbitten dark comedy, Ravenous. Moland’s tale never becomes as gloriously, transformatively unhinged as Bird’s but both films have more going on under their frozen surfaces than a simple plot description will cover.
Anyway, here’s s simple plot description. Cold Pursuit relocates the original’s story from Norway to the fictional town of Kehoe, Colorado, a quaint community and ski resort about three hours outside of Denver. Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) is the local snowplow driver, carving paths through snowdrifts taller than any man for the locals and tourists alike to traverse. But when Nels’ son (Micheál Richardson), becomes the senseless collateral damage of a drug dispute, Nels takes it upon himself to exact revenge on as many of those responsible as possible, no matter what it does to his relationship with his wife (Laura Dern), his ex-criminal brother (William Forsythe) or his very soul. All of this takes place, by the way, against the backdrop of a state with legal recreational marijuana, meaning about half the characters are regularly smoking weed; Cold Pursuit may be the grimmest stoner comedy ever made.
It gets grimmer, too. The movie’s violence—including a conspicuous tendency to show characters spitting up their own teeth while being beaten—is unsparing. It is apparently this aspect of the film that drove Neeson, in a recent interview, to reveal a shockingly racist story from his own past, completely unprompted. There’s nothing that can be said to excuse or explain away this development and, despite its qualities as a film, Cold Pursuit is not going to banish Neeson’s newfound reputation from your mind. It may, however, make the movie’s pitch black sense of humor feel even darker.
Moland’s showiest conceit is to keep track of the body count by following each death with the deceased character’s full name and a headstone-ready religious symbol. He wrings a couple of glum chuckles out of this trick, like the moment you’re meant to think, “Oh, I guess that guy was Jewish” to a particularly bloody shootout being followed by about a dozen names and symbols on the screen at once. But he’s also using this motif to satirize the nature of these kinds of revenge stories and Neeson’s now familiar appearance in them in particular. Nels’ son was innocent but this mission of vengeance creates ripples that result in the deaths of others who simply find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That’s not to imply, though, that Moland is ignorant of or resistant to the potential energy and excitement of this kind of movie. Nels’ job, steering a massive machine relentlessly through obstacles it is designed to thoughtlessly toss aside, is more than just a powerful visual metaphor for his blind rage. It’s also just damned compelling to watch. A car chase in which one of the cars is a snowplow is like something out of an alternate universe Mad Max.
Cold Pursuit is probably too satisfying to viewers’ bloodlust to achieve the full potential impact of its criticisms. In other words, Moland lacks the convictions of Michael Haneke and his Funny Games. But if you like a side of irony with your carnage—if, for instance, you relish the juxtaposition of using The Pretenders’ “2,000 Miles,” a mournful tribute to a dead friend, to soundtrack a sequence depicting how good Nels is getting at disposing of drug dealers’ corpses—this is probably the movie for you.