Enigmatic 'Cold Weather' Wise Beyond Its Years
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Cold Weather" is the third feature film directed by Aaron Katz, a young (he turns 30 this year) American director whose distinctive, unusual artistic voice rings very strongly in each of the films he's made over the past seven years. (In the interest of full disclosure, I'll point out here that Mr. Katz is a friendly acquaintance of mine.) It's hard to describe, precisely, the effect he achieves with his low-budget films, which are about young urban people in precarious, tentative states in both their emotional and professional lives. But it's a disarming, uncommon one that simultaneously engages the viewer and keeps him or her a little off-balance.
For instance, in "Cold Weather," one of the opening shots depicts a young man and a young woman standing, with their backs to each other, in the typically tight kitchen you'd expect to find these vaguely disheveled contemporary characters in. And of course the initial assumption is that these two are a romantically involved couple. And at this point, some folks who've seen a bellyful of movies about the romantic travails of young scruffy hip white people might roll their eyes and think, "Oh, God, not again." Except, as it turns out, the two young people, Doug (Cris Lankenau) and Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), are not having romantic travails; they're brother and sister.
Doug has moved into Gail's place in Portland, Oregon, after not quite completing his studies in forensic science, and although he doesn't seem all that hugely depressed or dysfunctional, he's clearly having trouble with what you'd call his life's direction. This fact comes to the fore when he rather arbitrarily takes a job working in an ice factory. (The way Katz depicts this gig -- the way he depicts work in general, with what seems to be genuine interest in the way people make their livings -- also distinguishes him from a lot of other filmmakers his age. And from most Hollywood filmmakers as well, come to think of it.) There he meets a hyper young DJ named Carlos, whom he tries to hip to the joys of Sherlock Holmes as laid out in the original Arthur Conan Doyle. Soon an ex of Doug's swings into town, hangs out, looks to be headed for a hookup with Carlos ... and then, vanishes. This gives Doug, who is after all at least partially trained for this sort of thing, a new, albeit perhaps fleeting, sense of purpose. He buys a cheap pipe (in one of this often very funny film's most laugh-out-loud scenes), adopts the sometimes querulous Carlos as a Watson of sorts, and sets to solve a mystery.
As I've observed elsewhere (portions of this review draw from a blog post I wrote about the film), throughout "Cold Weather" but particularly from this point on, Katz suspends his characters between a gorgeous, lyrical, leisurely, often funny simulation of reality and a full-on genre contrivance, if you will. The ostensible mystery that the film's Sherlock-Holmes-loving protagonist Doug allows himself to be drawn into is replete with potentially sensationalist thriller elements: a suitcase full of money, characters mixed up in porn production, a possibly dangerous man who wears a cowboy hat -- that sort of thing. Every time the story turns a corner, the whole enterprise seems like it could veer off into full-blown Hitchcock or David Lynch territory. But then the film will execute a wry pullback that returns the viewer to some artistic iteration of the everyday that's also not quite the everyday, if you catch my drift. Just as the very title and premise of his last feature, "Quiet City," seemed to revel in a kind of paradox, so too does this picture take elements of thrillers and more conventional character studies and mix them in a way that makes the perspectives and atmospheres here seem utterly new.
At one point near the end of the film, Gail gets into a car from which Doug is conducting some amateur surveillance and asks, "Has anything happened yet?" I cannot tell a lie: Would-be moviegoers seeking out a fast pace and vigorous activity from its characters are not likely to find much satisfaction here. But as contemporary American art films go, "Cold Weather" is a lot more than a well-observed but meager mood piece. It's a seemingly enigmatic but ultimately fully realized and generous cinematic experience.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.