It’s Cold Outside, by Scott Nye
I am always fascinated by the way directors known for more personal work approach genre films. You can get anything from straight-ahead, exceptionally-directed exercises (The Departed, The Shining, Touch of Evil) or something that seems to have consumed the genre and regurgitated it back as something surprisingly personal while still hitting the required buttons (Hour of the Wolf, The Long Goodbye, Band of Outsiders, The Passenger, Solaris). While the former can be electrifying, rejuvenating a kind of film you’ve come to expect only so much from, the latter typically prove more interesting, more inventive, and almost more exciting.
So it is with Aaron Katz’s new film, Cold Weather, a detective film viewed through the prism of mumblecore. The movement, which is characterized by low-budgets, digital photography, and wayward twentysomethings, has drawn far more derision than respect, and it’s become kind of amusing to watch filmmakers run from the term and critics reject its application to the movies they happen to like. Whatever you want to call it, it has pretty undeniably happened, and will hopefully continue. It’d be especially nice if they were all this fine.
It should come as little surprise, then, that it takes a good while for the genre aspects of the film to set in, but viewers who do not judge a film by how efficiently it accomplishes its plot synopsis will have no problem discovering the motivation here – the film isn’t a detective film. It has elements of the detective genre in it, naturally. Eventually, yes, a girl, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), does go missing, and Doug (Cris Lankenau), along with his sister Gail (the magnetic Trieste Kelly Dunn) and new friend Carlos (Raul Castillo), begin looking into her disappearance. And these elements are really, really fun, which is most certainly not a word often associated with mumblecore.
Though Doug has a background in criminology (he studied it in college, and is an avid Sherlock Holmes fan), he is far from your typical movie detective, and there are few things more enjoyable and riveting than watching people who have no idea how to handle crime try to do just that. It’s like watching people who don’t know how to fight try to beat each other up. It’s funny, embarrassing, and a little charming in its own way. The mystery itself is no great shakes, but it feels fresh because Doug is so clearly having a blast, even while lives are at stake. This isn’t because Doug is a sociopath, but because he’s living out what he feels is his calling.
This is due in no small part to the mystery only being a mode for the real story, which will sound a little more familiar to mumblecore viewers – Doug has just moved back home, and is reconnecting with his sister. In spite of their shared screen time, this aspect of the film registers fairly low, so much so that the realization that this is what the film is actually about will blindside many a viewer. As previously mentioned, Dunn is about as magnetic as women in the movies come, and Lankenau has come a long way since starring in Katz’s Quiet City. He’s far more interesting onscreen here, and the two of them pretty much perfect the bond between people who are inextricably a part of each other’s lives but aren’t terribly close.
Katz, for his part, is on fire. Dance Party, U.S.A. and Quiet City were two of the most promising independent films I saw in the last ten years, and while there’s a lot here that extends stylistically from those two films, it’s very much a new thing. The film takes place in my hometown of Portland, and uses the industrial district to fantastic effect. That area, now labeled more for the feeling it evokes than for any actual industry, combined with the town’s frequently-overcast skies, is very conducive to the classic noir feel, though Katz is wise not to milk it (this isn’t Winter’s Bone, people). The area and the weather inform a mood without defining it; the people are still a product of their own experiences and interests. Katz doesn’t to dictate, so much as he finds, an overriding tone, the result of which is a familiar, if unspecific feeling of grasping for purpose.
Though it can be self-indulgent (which, for me anyway, is typically a good thing), Cold Weather is a fascinating approach to the detective genre, surprisingly successful as both a personal story and a genre exercise. It’s fun and charming in just the right doses, and quietly touching by the end. Katz is three-for-three as far as I’m concerned.
Editor’s note- Aaron Katz and cinematographer Andrew Reed were guests on the podcast back in 2008. You can find their episode here.