Cold Weather (Director: Aaron Katz): I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a little bit disappointed with Aaron Katz’s third feature. I’d been turned away from a sold-out screening at SXSW all the way back in March and had been eagerly waiting for another chance to see the film. Thanks to Refocus, Jeff Wright’s awesome FREE screening series, Toronto audiences (including your narrator) finally got a chance to see it.
Doug (Cris Lankenau, previously seen in Katz’s last film Quiet City) has dropped out of college in Chicago and moved back home to Portland, where he shares an apartment with his older sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). Despite his ambition to become a detective, something didn’t work out and he’s retreated to familiar surroundings to regroup. He takes a menial job, working night shift in an ice factory, where he meets Carlos (Raul Castillo), a surprisingly complex character who is nevertheless content with his choice of career. Nothing much seems to happen until Doug’s ex Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) turns up in Portland. She claims to be on a business trip, in town for some training classes. Over the weeks that follow, the four characters socialize and we see what might be the beginning of some attraction between Carlos and Rachel. Doug doesn’t seem to care.
And then one night Carlos finds Rachel missing from her motel room, and the would-be detective and his new friend find themselves with a real mystery on their hands. Of course, Katz being Katz, he doesn’t suddenly turn the film into an episode of CSI. Instead, his characters gradually move into action, cracking codes and tailing suspects. They’re smart but they seem to realize when they’re relying on methods they’ve read about in books or seen in films. This self-awareness adds a very dry sense of comedy to the proceedings, but Katz is also able to gradually ratchet up the suspense. The mystery is actually pretty well-constructed and not as obvious as it first appears. I also like how in general Katz leaves details in that other filmmakers might take out; for instance, some of the awkward silences that happen in conversations between new friends, or ex-lovers.
But for every detail that the film hands you, it withholds two more. It’s as if Katz scribbled very hard in one corner of his canvas, and left other huge patches blank. In the end, the uneasy marriage of genre film with talky self-aware “slacker” cinema didn’t quite work for me. The abrupt ending seems to imply that the relationship between Doug and Gail is more important than the mystery they’re ostensibly solving. But that relationship is even more of a mystery than the disappearance of Rachel. Gail is older, more responsible and rational, and she and Doug appear to be close, but they still don’t know much about each other’s lives. Doug is passive to the point of disappearing.
While Lankenau played a similarly dull character in Quiet City, he at least seemed to come alive in the presence of his love interest. Here, despite being surrounded by more interesting characters, he never feels particularly real. Even though her character has less screen time, Trieste Kelly Dunn has a presence that outshines Lankenau in every scene. And the character of Carlos is so appealing that I actually missed him when he wasn’t on screen. Doug’s absolute lack of romantic interest in the beautiful Rachel also seemed hard to fathom. There just doesn’t seem to be very much to Doug, and even his attempt to emulate his hero Sherlock Holmes by smoking a pipe falls flat when he realizes that, unlike Holmes, it doesn’t really help him think at all.
None of this is to say that Cold Weather is a bad film. It has a great score by Keegan DeWitt, for one. It’s as well-made as anything Katz has done, and I admire his reach in trying to go beyond the traditional limitations of current American indie cinema. But I think it’s either underwritten or else the central character of Doug is just not compelling enough to care about. I recently watched Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, another update of the traditional detective story, and found it completely charming. But it, and other Chandler-esque homages such as The Big Lebowski or television’s Bored to Death, possess razor-sharp scripts and uniquely unforgettable protagonists who seem to almost wink at the audience from time to time. Cold Weather, though reminiscent of those films, is so low-key that it’s in danger of evaporating right off of the screen.