Even the most ignorant Americans are now aware of the murders of unarmed black men by police officers, but fewer people know that Canadian police officers have their own way of “accidentally” murdering indigenous men and women: By driving them miles away from the nearest town and leaving them outside to freeze to death. At least three Canadian Aboriginal men are thought to have been murdered this way in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in the early 2000’s. The murders are incredibly difficult to prove, and a 2003 investigation was not able to result in a conviction. The investigations did bring wider attention to the practice, which became known as taking someone on a “Starlight Tour.”
Not exactly the kind of story one would pitch as a web series aimed at teenagers, which is why the excellent new series “Cold” feels like a breath of (freezing) fresh air. Created by Canadian newcomer Emily Diana Ruth and produced by New Form Digital, “Cold” is an exacting thriller awash in the crisp grandiosity of the Canadian landscape that provides its fitting setting. From its breathtaking drone shots, ominous original soundtrack, and restrained yet gripping storytelling, ‘Cold’ is a gale force to reckoned with.
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Young Isla’s (Annalise Basso) red hair pops brilliantly against the whites and grays of northern Canada’s snowy fields and country roads. She is a bright spot amidst all this bleakness, the cherubic-faced city girl rolling into town in search of answers about her past. From the opening shots, however, we know that Isla is not welcomed warmly to her one-time hometown, someone has bound and gagged her in the trunk of their car, and then released her into the cold, dark night. Four days earlier, she is stealing license plates and hiding out at cheap motels (“The kind of place that doesn’t rent by the hour”), asking for directions to the local prison.
Until recently, Isla thought that her father and mother were both killed in a car accident, which is why was sent to live with her uncle in Toronto. But a letter from her father confirms that he is alive, if not well. In reality, Thomas (Todd Lowe of “True Blood”) has been serving time for the murder of her mother, though he claims he is innocent. Isla is desperate to meet her father and hear his side of the story, but she must evade the efforts of her Uncle Nathan (Jim True-Frost of “The Wire”), who has reported Isla missing and is offering a $10,000 reward for information on her whereabouts. She finds a friend in Tina, the hotel clerk with ties to the First Nations community who helps her track down some of her mother’s former social work clients.
The mystery unfolds steadily, taking more than a few surprising but remaining grounded in reality. “Cold” has much to work with when it comes to the raw material of Northern Canada, and Ruth honors her chosen backdrop with much screen time and a sharp cinematic eye. The young director shows great maturity with her commitment to casting the First Nations characters with actors of First Nations descent, giving them the job of introducing the Starlight Tours. By placing Tina front and center at Isla’s side, the indigenous people are honored, not co-opted. “Cold” is Isla’s journey, however, and Ruth does not let her young protagonist off the hook, allowing her to put her foot in her mouth on more than one occasion.
Short form series made for the web (with this kind of storytelling, the term “web series” seems almost too quaint) are most successful when sticking to comedies with pithy premises. “Awkward Black Girl” tells you all you need to know. “High Maintenance” is an easy sell with a quick explanation: Weed delivery guy visits a new client each episode. “Cold” defies conventional web series wisdom, instead opting for slow-burn storytelling and a bleak premise in an even bleaker setting. But if audiences love thrillers on television, why wouldn’t they watch one made exclusively to live online? It’s a gamble New Form was willing to take, and it paid off.