Tze Chun’s 2010 feature-length debut “Children of Invention” involved a floundering single mother engaging in ill-fated pyramid schemes as a frantic means of providing for her two young children. Chun’s follow-up “Cold Comes the Night” also involves a single mom embarking on an illegal scheme for the sake of her child, but it places the conundrum in the context of a tightly wound noir thriller. While the fundamental drama stems from credible lower class struggles, the plot’s criminal element engages with these issues like a blunt instrument. Even so, Chun treats the material with a sophistication that brings its pulpy scenario down to earth. Not even Bryan Cranston with a cheap Slavic accent can stop him.
Set in an isolated upstate town, “Cold Comes the Night” focuses on motel owner Chloe (Alice Eve) at the end of her rope as she fights to make rent and care for daughter. As the movie starts, Chloe has two week ultimatum before she has to vacate the premises, while the government threatens to take away her kid. “I’d rather die,” Chloe asserts, establishing her commitment to dire circumstances in immediate terms that come into play once she faces that exact possibility.
Into the middle of this drama lands the straight-faced Topo (Cranston), a gruff man of few words on the verge of blindness and passing through town while clandestinely smuggling drug money to an undisclosed location. When his ride winds up dead after a violent encounter with a prostitute, Topo loses track of his vehicle — along with the bundle of cash inside of it. Stuck in an elaborate version of the dead-end scenario facing Chloe, he forces the woman to act on his behalf to track the money down.
Sporting a gun and hiding behind a pair of red shades, Cranston is nearly as threatening as the character he played on “Breaking Bad” during its later seasons, though a distracting and pointless accent constantly obscures an otherwise formidable performance. Topo remains a threatening presence in spite of his dwindling eyesight, capable of wielding a gun and making Chloe do his bidding until she manages to negotiate for a stake in the returns. It’s around that point that the duo figures out the money has been stashed by a twisted cop (Logan Marshall Green) with whom Chloe has had a complicated history. Their eventual confrontation takes the story into increasingly suspenseful territory in which no one’s safety is certain.
Chun’s screenplay, co-written by Osgood Perkins and Nick Simon, unfolds with impressive economy: Chloe’s personal issues are effectively established in a handful of scenes before the rather basic main contrivance — get the money and run — takes hold. But even as the details lack much in the way of freshness, a handful of violent confrontations render Chloe and Topo’s internal struggles with flashes of physical intensity. While Topo functions as a Terminator-like killing machine with an empathetic side buried inside metal exterior, Eve’s performance achieves a similar impact with greater texture: Her fragile, darting expression points to unpredictable mania lurking beneath the gentle exterior.
The movie is similarly layered, its simpler dimensions obscuring an insightful portrait of social angst. The late film critic Manny Farber praised this kind of tradition in the sort of B-movie that served as “a subterranean delight that looks like a cheap penny candy on the outside.” Watching “Cold Comes the Night,” it’s hard not to imagine what Farber would have thought of this rudimentary thriller, which operates at best in the crime-gone-wrong tradition of “Fargo” without ever aspiring to its greatness, but retains a sense of gravitas throughout. Chun’s ultimate focus on the desperation of his two leads gives the movie a palpable thematic core that transcends its genre limits.
These are big times for exploring the American dream, and the ills of capitalist urges, at the movies. From slick con artistry in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle” to the wildly expressionistic antics of “Spring Breakers,” clearly this nation’s anxieties have congealed around a shared concern for money troubles. Though not as successful or grand as other recent explorations, “Cold Comes the Night” goes furthest in its search for the root causes of dangerous behavior. The minor key quality of the material hardens into serious analysis: In the juxtaposition of Eve’s face and the various threats coming at her, despite the exaggerated nature of the proceedings, they retain a hauntingly universal feel.
Criticwire Grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening in New York and Los Angeles while also becoming available on VOD platforms this Friday, “Cold Comes the Night” may generate some interest in Cranston’s performance, but its best bet lies with digital markets where its genre hooks and solid word of mouth may carry it. Even so, it has limited appeal only slightly boosted by the lack of competition at the start of the year.