For some, relationships mean navigating the difference between the person we fall in love with and who that person becomes within that couple. It can be a negotiation of accepting what is admired and loved in the other person, above the traits that emerge over time that can range from driving us crazy, to showing an uglier side that perhaps no one involved wants to acknowledge. In short, two people deciding to throw in together is a complex bridging of emotions, personalities, expectations, and more. In Scott Cohen‘s ambitious and admirable debut, “Red Knot,” the filmmaker endeavors to show two people drawn together by who they are, and slowly thrust apart by what they’ve become.
Peter (Vincent Kartheiser) and Chloe (Olivia Thirlby) are young, in love, married, and ready for adventure. A belated honeymoon trip sees them travel to South America to board the titular Red Knot, a ship that will take them on a journey to the Antarctic. But the voyage isn’t entirely for romantic purposes, as it will be a valuable research opportunity for Peter, who is working on an article, and eager to spend time with noted whale biologist Roger Payne. For her part, Chloe is initially happy to be supportive of Peter, but soon the tides of their relationship grow rockier the further the ship heads south, driving each of them to opposite poles.
Indeed, Cohen’s film is not without a brace of metaphors, so numerous that in the hands of a lesser director, they would easily overcome the delicate dramatic dance of the picture. But Cohen is less concerned with the specifics of the plot than with the capturing that specific feeling of steady emotional decay. There is no single reason why Peter and Chloe drift apart, but watching their interactions it’s easy to chalk up the numerous splinters that collectively wedge them away from each other. And neither is blameless. While Peter may act selfish and callous, focusing more attention on his work than on what is supposed to be his honeymoon, and is clueless to Chloe’s growing feeling of unimportance as a result, her reaction to completely shut out her husband, and abruptly halt their marriage, seems like a calculated overreaction. The ruggedly handsome Captain Emerson (Billy Campbell) does make an easy shoulder to lean on instead. But from both Peter and Chloe, these choices are rooted in the authenticity of the capriciousness of young love, where the lessons of commitment haven’t yet been fully learned or absorbed.
Lensed during a 23-day expedition off the coasts of Argentina and Antarctica, Cohen’s background as a photographer informs almost every frame of this gorgeous film. And extra credit goes to cinematographer Michael Simmonds for making it all look so beautiful. But the slim film, running just around 80 minutes, makes every moment matter. Cohen does not let the landscape overwhelm the story, and the characters themselves are just as well captured as the sheets of ice, sea of penguins, and blue depths of the water the Red Knot cuts through with ease. This is a movie about two people falling apart among the vastness of a wintery wilderness, but trapped physically on the boat, while emotionally frozen with feelings they don’t yet understand how to grapple with. With Cohen wisely giving us just enough background both Peter and Chloe to understand why they fell in love, it makes it all the more moving that they can’t seem to stick through this rough patch.
And so it’s a disappointment that Cohen can’t quite bring this one home. Graced with subtle, yet expressive performances from both Kartheiser and Thirlby, in a film that’s narratively fragmentary, yet delicately presented, the closing notes are curiously too on the nose and completely elusive all at the same time. Cohen attempts to have it both ways, with a sequence bookending the film from different perspectives that doesn’t quite work, and a haunted tone that’s not quite earned. But these are flaws that can be lived with as these are not the movements of a director trying to stretch beyond his means, so much as choices that just don’t quite pan out. And it doesn’t detract from the fact that for almost all of its running time, “Red Knot” is insightful in the way few first films are, and marks Cohen as a filmmaker to watch. [B]