Ruba Nadda’s October Gale begins as a moodily introspective drama about grief before implausibly morphing into a thriller where its characters draw guns and track each other through the dead of night. It’s an uneven hybrid of genres that’s initially elevated by Patricia Clarkson’s performance as Helen, a widowed Toronto doctor who’s ventured alone to an isolated cabin, so beloved by her deceased husband, in the Canadian wilderness. The actress soulfully articulates Helen’s feelings of emotional detachment as she seeks to jettison her lingering heartache, wrestling with painful memories that are rendered in softly lit flashbacks of the way things were; the on-location atmospherics also persuasively depict the title’s late-autumn tempest. Struggling for the means to cope, she brings to mind Sandra Bullock in Gravity, only with a cottage in place of a space capsule.
Yet Nadda brings Helen to the brink of catharsis not by elucidating her internal wrangling, but by resorting to infuriating clichés, washing ashore a bloodied stranger, Will (Scott Speedman), literally on a dark and stormy night. Though Helen’s tender, if tentative, care in mending his physical wounds suggests an inherent compassion beyond her simple medical qualifications, her continued assistance strains credibility. Will strictly communicates in vagaries that aren’t so much behavioral tics as they are screenplay necessities, stringing along the audience to ensure we’re never too far ahead of the plot. When a colorful local, who seems born of a Northern Exposure episode, turns up, Will merely barks that, should Helen let him inside, she’ll ensure both their deaths, neglecting to explain exactly why that is, and as such blunting the tension of the scene. Played with such quiet intelligence by Clarkson, Helen is repeatedly forced to undermine that I.Q. with inexplicable decision-making, like taking up a rifle in the third act as if she’s the deputy in a western movie, earnestly discussing battle strategies for a looming showdown with the films chief heavy, Tom (Tim Roth).
Though he and Will share personal history, the manner in which Tom’s monologue exists to fill in motivational blanks only dangles further questions as to why he would go to such absurd lengths to exact revenge. And Roth plays the part with oddball quirkiness as opposed to genuine menace, a choice that mutes his character’s supposedly sizable threat. But where October Gale truly falls apart is in the idea that Helen would take a life-or-death stand, for reasons barely explained, with Will, a person she hardly knows, so as to purge her sorrow. And that the film strongly hints at sparks of burgeoning love between the two is particularly demeaning, implying that all that Helen required to allegedly move past her beloved husband’s passing was the mere presence of another man.