The mumblecore movement has always lent itself well to low-stakes cinema, comedies and dramas in which character and player are key, and incident rarely spills out into more than a few rooms. Cold Weather, the third film from SXSW darling Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA, Quiet City), while still evidently constrained by budget and circumstance, challenges this method, supplanting the expected with a compelling, if somewhat uneasy, neo-noir plot, borrowing lovingly from Sherlock Holmes lore with just a splash of 80s-era David Lynch.
Cold Weather will in style and tone be compared almost instantly to Rian Johnson’s sensational 2005 indie noir Brick, and though the two films share a certain sensibility, Katz’s work carves out its own unique identity, even if it is at the cost of some dramatic weight. A lengthy half-hour opening introduces us to Doug (Cris Lankenau), a forensic science student who drops out of college to go and live with his sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), in Oregon, landing a dead-end job at an ice factory, where he meets the laid-back Carlos (Raul Castillo). As a friendship – over a love of Sherlock Holmes books – develops, Doug’s ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) promptly disappears. With some encouragement from Carlos, they begin to investigate what happened to her, putting their love for Doyle’s timeless character very much to good use.
For a measure Cold Weather is not as self-serious or as confident as Johnson’s Brick; it is, like its protagonist, more than a little awkward and at times testing, but ultimately it hits the right buttons, and demonstrates that you needn’t have a sizable budget or professional actors to craft a startlingly-photographed, well-performed and mostly engaging work. If you can persevere through the overlong opening portion – which details Doug’s uprooting in painstaking detail though creates a palpable bond between the characters – then what remains is a solid low-fi effort, with a welcome regard for character over laboured breadcrumb following. While Lankenau is decent if overly subdued in the lead role, it is both Dunn and Castillo who ultimately steal the show, as a subtle dynamic slowly begins to emerge even if it is never satisfyingly followed up on.
The film’s real triumph, is that it makes us like these characters, and while it’s ultimately much ado about little, at least they aren’t reduced to gormless slacker types or self-consciously quirky indies. Katz captures the crushing ennui of Doug’s new life with piercing detail thanks to Andrew Reed’s evocative cinematography (which is astounding to observe given the budget), and Keegan DeWitt’s chilly score brings some much-needed gravitas to the low-key drama. Those expecting frenetic set-pieces and a particularly tight mystery plot might become unstuck, and equally you might find yourself dismayed by the overt referencing to Doyle – there’s a scene in which they stop to buy Holmesian garb and suck on a pipe – but this is still a welcome retort to the contrived, forced machinery of most contemporary thrillers out of Hollywood.
It could do with some bolt-tightening in the final act, which I imagine will divide audience with its denouement, but Cold Weather is an imaginative take on the typical mumblecore flick, demonstrating that it probably has more wider-reaching applications than you might think. In his third feature, Katz has made himself standout from other young filmmakers; he has paid tribute to his forefathers while also managing not to pay overt homage. Minimalist to the point of self-indulgence though admirable in its economy, Cold Weather is a very different kind of thriller. Think Brick by way of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Cold Weather is on limited U.K. release now.