Some directors experiment with various moods before discovering their sweet spots, but Aaron Katz pulls of the impressive trick of experimenting within the boundaries of his sweet spot. In his first two movies, “Dance Party, USA” and “Quiet City,” Katz displayed a unique ability to mix visual lyricism with unquestionably authentic portraits of lost young souls. His latest work, “Cold Weather,” fits that description as well, while taking the precise formula often prescribed to innumerable filmmakers of the DIY variety and cautiously expanding on it to a remarkably memorable effect. As proof that movies offer unlimited possibilities, “Cold Weather” adapts multiple cliches and overcomes all of them to reach a greater significance.
Set amid the habitual tranquility of Portland, “Cold Weather” begins with Katz’s usual dedication to stillness. The soothing natural beauty of the northwestern landscape (shot on the infallible RED camera) comes through in Andrew Reed’s pointed cinematography, allowing the early setup to unfold more as a cinematic poem than any sort of conventional narrative device. Mopey twenty-something Doug (Cris Lankenau) abandons his ambitions of becoming a scientist, crashes with his sister, bums around the house reading old Sherlock Holmes novels and does little else. The drollness unfolds in casual steps: He meets with an old girlfriend. He has a few drinks in the evenings. At a certain point, he takes an aimless job at the local ice factory and makes a new pal (Raul Castillo). For some time, Katz remains content to let “Cold Weather” churn along as a gentle character study with nothing more than basic thematic intentions at its core.
But the patient rhythm actually forms Katz’s brilliant self-aware ruse. After one character unexpectedly goes missing, Doug takes on a hyperbolic investigatory approach and lives out his Holmesian fantasy, while the movie adopts his subjectivity. Since the early scenes of “Cold Weather” work decently enough on one level, the playful injection of genre manages to elevate the viewing experience by contributing additional momentum with excitement and mystery. You get the sense that Katz knows exactly what he’s doing from start to finish.
Ultimately, “Cold Weather” revolves around the relationship that Doug shares with his sister (Trieste Kelly Dunn), as she eventually comes to inhabit the role of Watson to his Holmes, turning the chemistry of the original Victorian duo into a metaphor for familial communication. We learn less about the history of their life together from dialogue than from simply watching them in different modes: First in the early realistic scenes, followed by the hyperbolic detective sequences that give their characters symbolic dimensions. Constantly seeking clues to uncover the mystery of his missing ex-girlfriend, Doug routinely comes across as a kid playing in his basement with a growing need for something better to do with his time. But solving the mystery is hardly a red herring in his hapless existence. Instead, it represents his ever-present need to take control of his life.
“Cold Weather” succeeds mainly because it contains so many access points for viewers. Katz shows that he has the capacity to build legitimate suspense while maintaining a deeper intellectual agenda. The movie comments on the power of role playing while allowing the audience to indulge in it, jiving with the story’s unlikely flow in spite of the unexpected tonal shift. Keegan DeWitt’s upbeat score gradually veers into a lively avant garde collage of discordant rhythms. It could be the soundtrack of the year — but in the context of “Cold Weather,” DeWitt’s music mainly serves to enhance mood, amusingly commenting on the action as it becomes increasingly surreal.
While “Cold Weather” makes for a legitimate genre exercise, it also conveys a magical realist sensibility in the tradition of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” the kind of moving image experience informed by expressive audiovisual maneuvers rather than melodramatic overstatements. In spite of Katz’s formal dexterity, however, his directorial approach remains noticeably patient. The grandiose accomplishments of “Cold Weather” are miraculously defined by the overall smallness of its design.