Monday, 23 May 2011

The Tide In Portland: Cold Weather

Sherlock reinvented; mystery unfolds against a wintry backdrop in Cold Weather (2010)

An early scene in Cold Weather sees twentysomething amateur sleuth and college dropout Doug (Cris Lankenau) reading a 'Raffles' novel, by E.W. Hornung. Hornung was a brother-in-law to Arthur Conan Doyle, most famous for the 'Sherlock Holmes' novels which inspired this mumblecore mystery. Raffles, a gentleman cricketer and thief, is perhaps the anti-Holmes; a deliberate inversion of his character and moral code. Doug's hardback edition is hidden from direct view of the camera (I missed it first time around) and only by really examining the frame do observant viewers uncover the identity of this beautiful red book; it subtly reappears in other scenes too, such as the coffee non-date between Doug and his ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), who is in town on business. Perhaps the man in the cowboy hat, whose true identity I shall keep enigmatic here, is like Raffles, and the man with the receding hairline he meets at a corner-side café is his Watson-like accomplice, "Bunny" Manders. I'm almost certainly reading too deeply into this 'theory', and I have no true evidence to suggest such a connection (as far as I know Holmes and Raffles never crossed paths, despite the authors' connection and a similar Victorian setting), but what's beautiful about Cold Weather is that it allows and encourages the viewer to think this way, and to become involved in its expansive and atmospheric universe.

But don't be fooled by that last sentence. Katz's film is an intimate one, and composed of small details. The typical detective movie cliché would find a hard-boiled alcoholic who's seen it all embroiled in a deep conspiracy at the whim of a femme fatale; they've stared into the void but keep their smarts as sharp as their suits. It's the noir tradition, right? But Doug is an affable young man, a kind soul and, as aforementioned, a dropout. He's not qualified and therefore doesn't have an office or a badge or even his own car. When he uncovers a secret code he makes his way to the local library to check out books on code-breaking. The beautiful detail here is that he gets there early and has to wait outside, sitting patiently on a concrete wall until the librarian calls him in. His resources are limited, but he does his best, and that's endearing. Study his clothing too: jumpers and raincoats mainly. But he belongs to that same tradition of movie detective, perhaps finding his closest alumni in Brick's (Johnson, 2005) high-schooler Brendan, who smart-talked his way through a breezy neo-noir mystery of his own, also revolving around an ex-girlfriend. But these small details expand to all areas of production. Keegan DeWitt's score, which in my original review I said played "like the most beautiful indie acoustic album in the world" occasionally introduces the soft sound of rippling water, adding to the cold atmosphere of the film. It does what all great scores do: underlines but not overpowers the action. It's subtle and evocative, and feels natural to the film; like its heartbeat, if you will.

How often do you see a crime movie without a love interest? I mentioned femme fatales but no such character exists in Cold Weather. Instead our central protagonists are brother and sister. Their relationship is a delicate and honestly drawn portrait of people growing into each others company. They each have idiosyncrasies, embarrassments and cherished memories that they'd rather not reveal to the other that they remember. I don't think Doug and Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) really understand each other as adults, but they learn a lot through the course of their adventure and have a stronger bond by the end of the film. The ending of Cold Weather is about as perfect an ending as the cinema has ever produced. It revolves around a mixtape being rewound so that Doug can find a song he thinks Gail will like. He made her these mixtapes in High School, which must seem forever ago. At this point most films would be wrapping up the mystery and many audience members will be expecting that payoff. I love that it doesn't deliver, but instead cuts to black on a subtle glance between two people seeing each other for the first time. I love that it confounds expectations at every turn and delivers a well-rounded and engaging narrative which isn't in a rush to get you from Point A to Point B. I love that the people in this film are just nice, and I want to spend time in their company. How many films can you say that about? I can think of very few...

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