Mystery is a tricky genre to work in. Although there’s an indisputable amount of excitement involved as the protagonist and audience alike piece together the puzzle, once all is solved every associated feeling fizzles, leaving little impact and less to chew on post-viewing. Some directors have worked tirelessly to avoid this sentiment, with examples such as “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “Cache” playing by some rules but ultimately turning into a different beast at the end of the day. Others, like “Brick,” used talky-noir conventions and dropped them in a high school atmosphere. The result was a humorous and refreshing experience, maybe a little silly at times but enjoyable and focused nonetheless. Aaron Katz’s “Cold Weather,” a masterful combination of micro-indie sensibilities and missing-person mysteries, finds its success by constructing a legitimately tense plot and employing a loose aesthetic that allows atmosphere and charm to sometimes take precedent.
One of the biggest gripes with this crop of American independent filmmakers is their constant take on romantic/sexual relationships — the topics, no matter how well they’re executed and no matter what else is going on in the picture (Joe Swanberg‘s “Uncle Kent” examined aging and maturity… sometimes), are straight-up boring. Surely these people have other things to say without falling back onto relationships? These are important constants in our lives for sure, but they’re not the only thing at our core. Even fellow peers that have dabbled in genre – see “Baghead” – ultimately resorted to these contrived go-to subjects instead of going into something completely new. Katz refrains from doing so, and the central observance in “Cold Weather” is the strong bond between siblings Doug (Cris Lankenau, “Quiet City“) and Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) who find themselves caught up in a friend’s disappearance.
Doug, a forensics science major drop-out with a vocation to act like Sherlock Holmes, moves to Portland, Oregon with his sister while on a hiatus from his studies. He spends most of his free time with his sister and co-worker Carlos (Raul Castillo, who we will hopefully see more of), and the rest of his life consists of making ice at a nearby factory or reading some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s best. Katz focuses strongly on these friendships, analyzing both the reconstruction of sibling intimacy and the budding bond between associates at a shitty job. Normally these scenes tend to be handled almost as if they were a requirement; they’re only there to establish a relationship and nothing else. This director, on the other hand, seems to be excited with these ideas and puts effort towards making them not only realistic, but rather beautiful. In one instance, brother begs sister to blow-off work early and spend a day at the beach, showcasing their lively (but not overly quirky or twee) familial back and forth. The very visualist filmmaker places the camera a distance away, capturing their quiet lunch in a single wide take, one devoid of any superfluous conversation or distracting musical interludes. He lets it be, quietly examining a comfortable moment (the ones famously spoken of in “Pulp Fiction“) and, in turn, establishes their kinship with a subtle stroke. Instead of waiting patiently for the mystery to begin, he engrosses us in the characters’ lives, showcasing their personalities against some rather striking cinematography.
But, at some point, the narrative has to kick in. Rachel, Doug’s ex, comes to Portland on business and hangs out with the trio, finding common nerd-ground with Carlos. He takes this opportunity to invite her out for a night, which ends up going splendidly, though the notion of a follow-up is soon quashed by her sudden vanishing. Doug’s not phased- she’s not answering her phone, so what? Ever a good pal, he humors his buddy and goes to her hotel room to check in. The teasing stops once Doug realizes that they’re being watched by a man in a pick-up truck, who quickly peels away when discovered. Suspicious, no? The duo snoops around, and as they discover more and more inexplicable things, they find themselves involved in something potentially dangerous.
These kind of plots tend to be dead serious, and surely this sounds no different – after all, someone’s livelihood is on the line, and said person may already be dead. While it’s definitely engaging, thankfully the director keeps things from getting too dry or arduous, using his players’ charisma and chemistry to keep things interesting even when there’s a lull in story. The pacing is spot on, and when the team is running around attempting to solve things, the seediness and natural lighting give it a 70s American new-wave feel. One wouldn’t think suburbia could look so tattered and grungy; it’s a welcome change from the usual settings these kind of films seem too at home in. Possibly the weakest link, contrary to most critics and viewers, is the score. Though it’s not awful, it’s a bit too bouncy at times, with a particular track akin to someone hitting kitchen utensils together. It does manage to work well on the occasion, but something like the latter example is completely distracting and too out-of-place (it’s once played while they’re researching at the library). These songs also lead to some unfortunate TV-esque musical cues and segue ways, leaving a bad aftertaste in their wake. It doesn’t happen often, but their inclusion is a bit too perplexing to completely ignore or forgive.
Everything culminates in the final sequence, and the director doesn’t disappoint, crafting a coherent and appropriate thrill that manages to not only excite but remain lifelike. As brother and sister finally breathe a sigh of relief, they share a moment over an old recently discovered mix tape. Maybe they shouldn’t be this calm after what just happened, but few will care: these two are going to be all right, and that’s just the kind of reassurance we need. Katz ends rather poignantly with this moment, though a yearning feeling is hard to shake: can’t we just stay a little bit longer? The finale doesn’t really give true closure, but the only culprit there is the fact that the filmmaker created such a likable group of characters. But, alas, he’s already told his story and that’s all we’re gonna get. Onto bigger and brighter pastures….whatever you wanna do, if it shows even a shred of the talent used for “Cold Weather,” we’re down. [B+]