REVIEW: Aaron Katz's Cold Weather Wants to Have a Plot, and Almost Does
No filmmaker wants to be lumped in with the Mumblecore movement anymore, and for good reason: The problem with the pictures made by the likes of Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass brothers in the early to mid-2000s wasn't that they were made on tiny budgets; it was that they were aimless and peopled with characters who were supposedly like "real people," even though they weren't anyone you'd particularly care to watch in a movie. (Typical plot: So a guy goes here, and then he walks down the street, and then he meets this girl, and they talk about stuff, and then maybe they go to bed or maybe not.) What's more, they were punishment to look at. This was low-budget filmmaking made by people who seemed to think innovation and cleverness on a shoestring were bourgeois.
Aaron Katz, director of the 2006 Dance Party USA and the 2007 Quiet City, has often been lumped in with that early Mumblecore crowd, and for some understandable reasons: His pictures were made with minuscule budgets, and the "real people" who figured in them had that drifty aimlessness that characterizes the genre. But Katz has a much better eye than most of his compatriots do: You can tell he works hard to make movies that don't cost a lot of money look like actual movies, rather than just assertively lackadaisical exercises shot with a borrowed camera. And in terms of storytelling sophistication, his latest feature, Cold Weather -- despite the fact that it falls down cold in the last act -- feels like a step toward something bigger and better.
Doug (Cris Lankenau, who also appeared in Quiet City) is a forensic science and criminal justice student who, for reasons that are never explained ("aimlessness" probably covers it), has taken a break from school and moved back home to Portland. He shares an apartment with his sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), whose permanent facial expression appears to be, at first, a scowl of indifference toward her brother and everything else. Doug gets a job at night hauling ice at an ice factory; there, he meets Carlos (Raúl Castillo), a part-time deejay, who seems hipper, more urbane, and generally more engaged with the world than Doug is. One day Doug meets up with an old girlfriend, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), who tells him she's in town for a while on business. He draws her into his miniature social circle, which now includes a total of four people, including himself. Carlos and Rachel strike up a friendship, and while Doug drifts blithely and somewhat numbly through his life, it's Carlos who becomes alarmed when Rachel fails to show up for one of his deejaying gigs, and appears to have mysteriously checked out of her motel. He drafts Doug to help find her, and as they pull on one thread of this mystery, others begin to unravel.
Cold Weather is partly a movie with an actual plot, not just a portrait of young twentysomethings adrift in unfulfilling circumstances. And Katz (who also wrote the script) sustains at least a mild aura of suspense well into the movie. He clearly wants to get away from the "two people hanging out in a room, talking" school of filmmaking, and he brings some welcome restless energy to Cold Weather. Even the scenes in which the four chief characters just hang out, talking or playing cards, feel like part of a real story rather than just a hasty, half-formed sketch. When Katz shows the four playing a board time, they're clearly having a great time, and not ironically -- Katz gives us the sense that he cares for his characters, as opposed to just using them as mouthpieces for the discontent of his generation.
He's also on his way to developing some visual style, instead of trying to impart a sense of realism by just shaking the camera. He and cinematographer Andrew Reed take some care in framing everyday objects and places -- even the ice factory where Doug trudges to work every day is shot in a way that makes it seem merely workaday, part of a regular routine (and a regular paycheck), rather than a soul-killing institution. At one point Katz sets Doug and Gail on a bridge, backed by a magnificent waterfall -- the camera moves in slowly, from a long shot that captures the whole nature's majesty thing to a close one that captures the fragile almost-closeness between these two characters.
But Katz fumbles when it comes to shaping the plot. He sets up a mystery and then solves it only partially and half-heartedly, as if he'd simply lost interest in it, instead shifting his focus to the fragile sibling relationship. And that points the way toward another problem: As Lankenau plays him, Doug is the least-interesting character in the movie, the one who shows the least spark. (Castillo's Carlos is far more charismatic, and more unpredictable -- the movie could use more of him.) There are a few amusing shaggy-dog sequences here, like the one in which Doug pesters Gail into driving him to a smoke shop so he can buy a pipe like the one smoked by his idol, Sherlock Holmes, not realizing that a pipe that actually feels good in the hand can cost hundreds of dollars. (He returns to the car, having chosen an unsatisfactory but affordable model, only to realize he's forgotten to buy tobacco.) But Cold Weather still feels like a movie that would have benefited from a few more rounds of script polishing, and a little more focus on the plot mechanics rather than on the twee hopelessness of the main character. It's a movie that's on its way to being something, and that sense of forward motion counts for a lot.