Cold Weather, Aaron Katz’s latest foray into the mumblecore universe, works moderately well as a quirky, amateur detective story (though it’s actually unable to really solve its mystery) and less so as meditation on the general cafard of the recent college grad (or dropout, as is the case here). The commingling of the genres is actually a welcome move, adding another dimension for Katz and his characters to move in, much like if a director set a mumblecore movie on the planet Mars. The problem, though, is that in order for either of these types of movies about people finding themselves, or solving a mystery to work, the audience must care about the lost souls or mystery at hand, and here, it’s quite hard to do so. The characters do charm the audience, somewhat, and eventually, but only after they have assumed the roles of detectives. Cold Weather might have been an exceptional example of mumblecore given the premise, but the off-balance execution of the film creates the feeling that the project suffers from the same general ennui that its characters love to affect.
In the first half, Katz takes unnecessary pains to establish that Doug is not in any rush to get where he is or isn’t going, and unfortunately, parallels that fact with his shots and sequencing. It’s not hard to see that Doug isn’t really in control of his destiny, and we could do with half of the bad-weather montages. Chris Lankenau plays Doug with doe-eyed naiveté and innocence that borders on the regressive, a trait that everyone in Portland seems to share; it’s hard to tell if Doug just doesn’t care, or is really that perplexed by everything. He and his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) return to Portland, move in together and then promptly act like a freshly married couple that is already having trouble finding each other interesting. They go whale watching spontaneously, eat sandwiches, and play in the mud; they read before going to bed and she asks him when he’s coming to said bed; they drink whisky bemusedly over the bizarre nature of his new job in an ice factory.
The strange moments are patiently drawn out and sometimes beautiful, but it’s tough to open a film like this without establishing a character framework to build on. If you miss the fact that they are brother and sister in the sparse dialogue of the opening dinner scene (it’s not hard to do so) you might not get it until another 30 to 40 minutes in. Gail, to her dismay, gets a real job in an office; while Doug’s graveyard shift in an ice plant seems to be his goal for no reason other than it exists (“I didn’t even know there were ice factories,” his sister says). When Doug’s ex-girlfriend blows into town for “training” at her new job, and then disappears almost as suddenly, Doug puts on his deerstalker and goes to work.
Doug soon realizes that he’s pretty good at this type of thing, as he is, after all, on his way to a degree in forensic science and loves Sherlock Holmes, and perhaps starts to unearth the real passion in his heretofore passionless existence. Detecting the disappearance of someone else’s life is cathartic for Doug, and rightly so; he has no clue what’s going on in his own, so it makes sense that he should find joy in making sense of another’s. It’s a quaint little conceit that Katz exploits to the breaking point.
In this respect the combination of mumblecore and detective noir works rather well: Coincidentally, the effort to depict the listlessness of the modern age and the lost meandering youth of that age, create characters that sometimes come out flat, with their melancholy being easily mistaken for cowardice, which in Cold Weather makes for a quirky underdog detective you want to root for. As Doug cracks a code worthy of Dan Brown hidden in baseball statistics, and a mysterious briefcase is brought to light in the process, his chance to become a hero like his idle Holmes is at hand. In a funny set piece Doug and his sister don Hollywood disguises and steal the briefcase in question, making a clean get away to a rooftop car park, where presumably they will confront the bad guys and see how they might save the girl. But it doesn’t happen. Instead, the movie ends, just as arbitrarily as it starts.
The cinematography, by Andrew Reed, is first rate in Cold Weather, and the shots of the Portland coast are masterfully done. The distortion of image and reflection through water is a recurring motif in the film, and mirrors the changing personas of its growing youths. What initially looks like a screaming face against a window, when re-focused, turns out to be a harmless and wholly inanimate tree and some smudges on the glass. It’s solid filmmaking. There’s also a spine-tingling and tight score by the accomplished Keegan DeWitt that picks the film up from the doldrums at times and gives it new life. DeWitt’s poppy synths, chimes, and muted percussion compliment the otherwise relative silence of the film with a rich sonic background, and without the score the film might have been just a mumblecore lullaby.
But no matter how you cut it, Cold Weather‘s almost bizarrely abrupt ending just baffles. Doug doesn’t really solve the mystery, and the act of detecting, instead of helping him to find purpose in his life, becomes just another way for him to waste more time and stay lost. Doug still cannot break the cycle of being unable to finish something he’s started. Though the director was present at the screening to defend his decision and explain (predictably, the first question to him was, “Why the heck did you end it like that?”), it’s clear that until these detectives learn to speak a little louder, and confront their lack of motivation, the answer to that question won’t ever really matter anyway.