‘Cold Weather’: A deep indie that is not plot-resistant; a ‘love letter’ to Portland that is actually awesome

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A scene from 'Cold Weather.' (Image copyright IFC Films.)
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“I’m gonna be a detective someday.”

“You mean like C.S.I. and shit?”

“I don’t really want to do C.S.I. I want to be more like Sherlock Holmes.”

“Sherlock Holmes? ‘Elementary, my dear Watson,' and all that shit?”

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“Yeah!”

This is a conversation between Doug (Cris Lankenau) and Carlos (Raúl Castillo), coworkers at an ice factory in Portland, Oregon, 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 are never made clear), and has moved back home to Portland to share an apartment with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). He is aimless, but not in a way that suggests any 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). We don’t know why they broke up. 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? Will Carlos and Doug compete for Rachel? Will Doug’s sister fall for Carlos? Cold Weather keeps its options open, beautifully, in the opening sequences, so we actually get the sense that we are getting to know these people.

But then, when Rachel unexpectedly disappears, everything changes.

These four regular people suddenly find themselves at the heart of a real mystery. Carlos says to Doug at one point, desperate, “Dude, you know about these kinds of things.” Doug asks, “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 really special. I would call it brilliant. It has confidence, beauty, and a deep sense of the unknowability of much of our lives.

Genre films, like Westerns and mysteries, are out of fashion currently, and when you do see one, either the genre is winked at, up-ended, or commented upon 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 bluesy approach to Westerns, Altman’s The Long Goodbye is a jazz-riff on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character, Eastwood’s Unforgiven rolls back the rock of the typical Western to look at the amoral underbelly of it all, and Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery is a mixture of screwball comedy, film noir and straight-up mystery thriller. It takes great self-confidence 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 us stakeouts, and an increasingly frenzied hunt for clues. He also 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. This story is so immersed in place that the place becomes another character in the film. Katz has said that he wanted it to be a “love letter” to his hometown, and it is indeed that. Even the interior shots have a dark poetry to them, lamplight falling across battered couches, with the constant sense that outside is yet another overcast rainy day. The original score, by Keegan DeWitt, is haunting, memorable, and expertly 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 that is one of the best and most exciting parts about Cold Weather. So many films feature characters that seem to have no intellectual interests whatsoever. Do these people read? Do they have passions outside of the ones required of them by the bossy plot? Doug is so into Sherlock Holmes that early on he makes Carlos read one of the books. Carlos is blown away and comments, “Who knew? All this time, Sherlock Holmes.” Doug buys a pipe during a tense moment in the mystery because he knows that “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, 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 had been 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, with shootouts and gotcha moments, you will be disappointed, but the reality in the film is so much finer, and so much more illuminating. The true meaning is hidden. Who is Rachel? She appears to have had some sort of secret life going on. Don’t we all? In subtle moments throughout the film, we learn things about the characters that may seem surprising, messing 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 that she had dated someone for about six months the past year, and Doug is baffled that he didn’t know anything about it. Rachel says she works in a law office, but the reality is much darker. 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 all are, and the things we choose to reveal.

Carlos, Doug and Gail start to put the pieces together. This effort involves going to the library to look things up, and 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 in the film, Doug and Gail have dinner at their parents’ house. Doug has just moved home. It is not clear immediately that he and Gail are brother and sister. 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 started to write a film about a brother and sister, because that relationship is so rarely explored, but he was reading so many mysteries at the time of writing the script that he decided to see what would happen if he added that into the mix.

It was a bold choice and it pays off. 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 in a way that makes them seem fragile, precious and intelligent. The acting is terrific, the four leads inhabiting their characters like well-worn sweaters and parkas. There’s no acting with a capital A going on, which adds to the tension of the film, and to the sense that great forces are gathering on the periphery, something that can only be glimpsed at but never understood fully. The camera follows their faces around, catching this one, then that one, through their group conversations, giving a spontaneous feel to what is going on onscreen, a caught-in-the-moment energy, which is impossible to resist. This movie, the most ambitious by Aaron Katz so far, is impossible to resist as well.

Cold Weather opens today in limited release. It’s playing in New York at the IFC Center.