Review: Cold Weather: Portland Gumshoe-In-Training

This review originally appeared on Capital New York in 2010. This is part of the rebuild project of lost material. I came across all kinds of little movies I reviewed – and loved – but had forgotten about. Cold Weather is one of them. I LOVED this film. Cold Weather is streaming on Amazon right now, and I re-watched it a couple nights ago, and was just as entranced by it as I was the first time. So here’s that old review!

“I’m gonna be a detective someday.”
“You mean like CSI and shit?”
“I don’t really want to do CSI. I want to be more like Sherlock Holmes.”
“Sherlock Holmes? ‘Elementary, my dear Watson, and all that shit?”

This is a conversation between Doug (Cris Lankenau) and Carlos (Raúl Castillo), coworkers at an ice factory in Portland, Oregan, the setting of Aaron Katz’s beautiful and quietly intense third feature, Cold Weather (the breakout hit of last year’s SXSW).

Doug was a college student in Chicago, studying forensic science, but he dropped out (the reasons for this are never made clear). He moved back home to Portland and shares an apartment with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). Doug is aimless, but not in a way suggesting malaise or deep-rooted problems. He’s 22 years old. He reads mystery books. He and his sister stand on the roof of their apartment building, throwing grapes off the side, laughing as the grapes splatter. He makes his sister take a day off work to drive to the coast because (as he tells her, excitedly) “it’s whale-watching week!”

He’s not tormented with angst over “what he is going to do” with his life. He just wants to do nothing for a while. He meets up for coffee with his ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon). Rachel, Doug, Carlos and Gail start hanging out. Carlos and Rachel bond about Star Trek and go to a Trekkie convention together. They all go to a local club one night to hear Carlos DJ. These scenes play out with an acute eye for detail, and a good ear for realistic dialogue. It’s hard to say what is coming for these four people. Is it going to be some kind of love triangle? Or rectangle? Will Carlos and Doug compete for Rachel? Will Doug’s sister fall for Carlos? In the opening sequences, Cold Weather keeps its options open, beautifully, so we get the sense we are actually getting to know these people.

Then Rachel disappears. And everything changes.

These regular people suddenly find themselves at the heart of a real mystery. Carlos says to Doug at one point, desperately, “Dude, you know about these kinds of things.” “What kinds of things?” “Mysteries, man.”

How many independent films feature aimless kids, wandering around, doing nothing, having “deep” conversations over endless cups of coffee? How many of them fail to engage us emotionally, intellectually? There is a resistance to plot in many independent features, and while that is sometimes refreshing, it can be a trap, indicative of the filmmaker’s resistance to meaning itself. In our ironic age, saying what you mean is seen as being too “obvious”. But Cold Weather is something special. I would call it brilliant in its way. It has confidence and beauty, humor and smarts, but even better it explores the deep sense of the unknowability of so much of our lives.

Genre films, like Westerns and mysteries, are out of fashion, and when one comes along, more often than not the genre is winked at or commented on ironically (True Grit being a notable exception). There are excellent “riffs” on genre in America’s cinematic history: Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller takes a skewed bluesy approach to Westerns, Altman’s The Long Goodbye is a jazz-riff on Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade character, Eastwood’s Unforgiven rolls back the rock of the typical Western to look at the underbelly of it all, and Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery is a glorious mixture of screwball comedy, film noir, and a straight-up mystery thriller. It takes great certainty in oneself to join the flow of a well-known genre, and perhaps some filmmakers think it is “beneath” them. Aaron Katz, who wrote, directed, and edited Cold Weather, has none of these fears. He gives all the tropes to us: stakeouts, a frenzied hunt for clues. He gives us a lead character whose idol is Sherlock Holmes. Doug keeps saying he will get back to forensic science one day, but digging through trash cans in chilly green-lit motel rooms is perhaps more than he bargained for.

Cold Weather was shot on location in Portland, Oregon (where Katz grew up), and cinematographer Andrew Reed makes the cityscape look desolate and beautiful. The colors are cold and dark, the sunsets spectacular and lonely-looking. The action is interspersed with shots of the skyline, the mountains, the cold beaches. The film is immersed in a specific place, so much so that we can feel the cold and the rain. Katz has said he wanted it to be a “love letter” to his hometown, and he has succeeded. Even the interior shots have a dark poetry, lamplight falling across battered couches, with the constant sense that outside it’s yet another overcast rainy day. The original score, by Keegan DeWitt, is haunting, memorable, and specifically utilized.

Not only is the film a love letter to Portland, it is also a love letter to the work of Arthur Conan Doyle, and this is one of the most exciting parts about Cold Weather. So many films feature characters who seem to have no intellectual interests whatsoever. Do these people read? Do they have passions outside of the ones required of them by the plot? Doug is so into Sherlock Holmes he makes Carlos read one of the books. Carlos is blown away: “Who knew? All this time, Sherlock Holmes.” Doug buys a pipe during a tense moment in the mystery because he knows “it helped Sherlock Holmes to think”. He sits on his couch, smoking the pipe, as his sister warily looks on. “Is it helping?” she asks doubtfully. Doug replies, “Not really.”

The dynamic between Holmes and Watson is well-known (and perhaps never more accurately rendered than in the genre send-up Zero Effect, a fantastic film starring Bill Pullman as a crazy-genius Holmes-like detective, with Ben Stiller as the baffled everyman Watson part), and in Cold Weather, Doug and Carlos, on the hunt for the missing Rachel, uneasily and unconsciously fall into those roles. There is a terrifying moment when Doug glances around the empty motel room where Rachel was staying, sees something outside, doesn’t move, and says to Carlos, “Okay, I am about to tell you something, and I don’t want you to react at all. There’s a pickup truck parked outside watching us.”

If you go into Cold Weather expecting a big thriller ending you will be disappointed, but the reality in the film is so much finer, so much more illuminating. The true meaning is hidden. Who is Rachel? She clearly has some sort of secret life going on. Don’t we all? In subtle moments throughout, we learn things about the characters that mess with our preconceived notions and first impressions. Carlos, a tough swaggering kid with a skinny mustache and sideways baseball cap, is also a Trekkie and a DJ when he’s not at the ice factory. Gail reveals she dated someone for about 6 months the past year, and Doug is baffled he didn’t know anything about it. Rachel says she works in a law office, but the reality is much more complicated. These four people are constantly surprised by one another, in a way that feels honest and true. The mystery in Cold Weather is not just its plot-points. The mystery involves who we are, the things we choose to reveal, the things we choose to hide.

Carlos, Doug, and Gail team up to put the pieces together. This involves going to the library to look things up, or sitting in bars pretending to have a drink as they watch the guys at the next table. They are making it up as they go. Isn’t that what Sherlock Holmes does? He goes from moment to moment, observing the reality around him, coming to conclusions based on physical evidence, and then acting accordingly. In the opening scene, Doug and Gail have dinner at their parents’ house. Doug has just moved home. It is not clear yet that he and Gail are siblings. That information is withheld from us initially, and we have to put it together. Their parents ask them questions, “So how is it living together?” and Doug and Gail glance at one another, grinning, worlds of unspoken tension of the sibling-variety, percolating underneath. Katz said in an interview with GreenCine Daily that he originally set out to write a film about a brother and sister, because the sibling relationship is so rarely explored, but he was reading so many mysteries at the time of writing the script he decided to see what would happen if he added a mystery into the mix.

It was a bold choice and it pays off in spades. These are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and the film, with its moody color palette of cold blues and blacks and greens, highlights their ordinariness so they seem fragile, human, intelligent. The acting is terrific, the four leads inhabiting their characters like well-worn parkas. There’s no acting with a capital A going on, which adds to the tension, the sense that great forces are gathering on the periphery, something that can only be glimpsed at, never understood fully. The camera follows their faces around, catching this one, that one, through their group conversations, giving a spontaneous feel, nearly impossible to resist.

The same could be said for the film as a whole.

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3 Responses to Review: Cold Weather: Portland Gumshoe-In-Training

  1. Brendan says:

    Great review! Can’t wait to see it…just the still you posted is amazing all by itself!

  2. sheila says:

    Incredible, right? That is an amazing attention-getting shot. You’re gonna love it, Bren!!

  3. sheila says:

    Also, any chance I can get to pimp Manhattan Murder Mystery and Zero Effect …

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