Relationships between family members — particularly those between fathers and sons — have a way of settling into certain rhythms that often grow into ruts. They petrify, they become inflexible, and it can feel as though attempts to thaw them out only tend to exacerbate whatever estrangement was causing the problem in the first place. It’s unconditional love as a slow-motion car crash, and it’s something that Rob Connolly’s “Edge of Winter” understands in its bones, even if — like so many people who’ve been in a similar position — the film is woefully incapable of expressing itself when it matters most.
But Joel Kinnaman definitely deserves an A for effort. The recent “Suicide Squad” survivor anchors this solemn dramatic thriller as Elliot Baker, a burly and bearded middle-aged divorcé who lives in a one-bedroom apartment that he shares with a large shotgun and an even larger variety of flannel shirts. When his ex-wife (and her second husband) drop off his two sons before heading out on a cruise vacation, it’s immediately clear that neither of the kids are happy to be there.
Bradley (Tom Holland, your new neighborhood Spider-Man) is deeply entrenched in those sullen teenage years when everyone is hormonally inclined towards hating their parents. Caleb (Percy Hynes White) is a bit younger, a bit more excitable, a bit more naively optimistic that a little quality time together might smooth things over and allow the Bakers to reconstitute as a big, happy, slightly misshapen family.
No such luck, kid. It’s obvious from the start that “Edge of Winter” isn’t going to be that kind of movie. This isn’t going to be the sort of story where the well-meaning dad proves his worth to his sons and show mother that he’s matured into a responsible guardian. It’s not going to turn out that their step-father is secretly a jerk who’s been sleeping around — in fact, we never hear from him again.
No, Connolly’s debut feature is pitched towards tragedy from the start, as bad decisions begin to pile on top of each other. First, Caleb finds the gun and triggers Elliot’s temper. Next, Elliot tries to turn lemons into lemonade by driving his kids out into the frozen tundra and teaching them how to hunt. When he snaps at Bradley, he teaches the teen how to drive. When Bradley crashes their car, Elliott has to teach him and his brother how to survive in the wilderness without cell phone service or shelter.
The airless feeling of Connolly’s frames seems to give away the ending — all of the hope sinks into the snow like sound. The fate of the Baker boys isn’t as cut-and-dried as all that, of course, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Elliot’s demons might get the better of him. Connolly’s script, co-written with Kyle Mann, paints the character to be something of a Jekyll and Hyde situation, a decent man prone to terrible bouts of white hot anger.
But Kinnaman, to his great credit, bridges the gap between those two modes, so that Elliot often feels believably troubled rather than the victim of an exaggerated psychological condition. The actor’s dead eyes and blank anxiety make it easy for him to disappear into the underwritten roles he’s usually given, but that curse becomes a blessing when he’s inhabiting a character who feels threatened, whose anxiety needs to be hidden behind a think scrim of false strength. “Jesus, you boys are soft,” Elliot tells his kids at one point in that voice that lets you know he wishes he could be a little bit softer, himself.
This is irrefutably Kinnaman’s movie, but Connolly fatally undervalues him. He doesn’t trust his actor to walk the emotional tightrope his film stretches taut before him, to sell us on the idea of a father digging himself deeper into a hole of his own design. Instead, “Edge of Winter” becomes something of a backdoor monster movie, switching to Bradley and Caleb’s perspectives as Elliot goes off the rails.
Only in the final moments does it sell the idea that the father’s actions will reverberate in his sons’ futures. Until then, the thrills are too manufactured to land, the suspense is all but nonexistent, and the other characters that are introduced halfway into the ordeal are transparently there for no other purpose then to add more of it. The action weakens as the shit hits the fan, the movie going slack just when it should be growing more tense — the austere finesse with which Connolly frames the earlier portions melts into a sludge of generic sequences, the rookie failing to solve the limitations of the remote cabin where Elliott and the boys buckle down for the coming storm.
“The whole world’s your toilet,” Elliot tells Bradley when instructing him to relieve himself on some snow, but it’s only a few minutes later that “Edge of Winter” flushes its potential down the drain. When the dynamic between the Bakers does finally shift, the film has already dug a rut too deep for anyone to climb out.
“Edge of Winter” is now playing on VOD. It opens in theaters on Friday, August 12.