You’ll forgive director Brendan Walsh for wanting to have it both ways. “Centigrade,” the filmmaker’s feature debut — he wrote it alongside Daley Nixon, also a feature filmmaking newbie — opens with a pair of title cards that happily play into the tease that what follows is all real, or at least real enough to lend it all a little spice. First, we’re told, “In 2002, an American novelist and her husband traveled to Norway on a small book tour,” followed by the kicker, “What follows is inspired by actual events.” No, “Centigrade” itself is not a true story — certainly not the teased one about the American novelist and her husband — but it is inspired by real stories like it, and if Walsh is trying to have some fun blending fact and fiction, worse things have certainly happened in the genre space.
At least that first title card allows for the film’s chilling opening, which drops the audience smack into what’s already a bad situation with the minimum of fuss. Our apparently married Americans, Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez) and Matt (Vincent Piazza), are just rousing after a fitful night spent on the road — quite literally, it seems — after pulling over in the middle of a violent freezing rainstorm. Their rented SUV is now covered in not just snow, not just ice, but a frozen mix of the two that makes breaking out (or being seen by passerby) impossible. The situation is dire, and while “Centigrade” eventually spins off into some well-worn tropes and predictable twists, the strength of its clever introduction keeps it pushing forward into a satisfying end.
Walsh and his cast lay out plenty of important information early: not just the why’s and how’s of the situation, but the ways in which Naomi and Matt’s very different personalities compel them to act. Tightly scripted for its first half, Walsh and Nixon handily dispatch with the usual questions (why not break the window? why doesn’t the cell phone work? why did they stop in the first place?), neatly zeroing in on the situation at hand. While trapped mostly within the confines of the vehicle — a few exterior shots serve to drive home just how unforgiving the weather is — cinematographer Seamus Tierney finds plenty of places to explore, and Lauren Crawford’s crumbling production design keeps the single set very believable.
That’s not to say that “Centigrade” and its creators are content to work through what’s already an intriguing premise, and for all its airtight choices, the script leans hard on some major twists. Or, if not twists, wrenches in an already sputtering engine, one last cherry on top of a very doomed, very cold sundae. Naomi, the more seemingly desperate of the two (she’s the one lobbying for them to smash a window and dig their way out), is pregnant, and while Walsh doesn’t initially handle that reveal as some sort of gotcha moment, the situation steadily grows to hinge more and more on what that all means. It’s not gotcha, but it’s close to it, a sort of, “oh, you think this is bad, what if we added a baby to the mix?” that makes the film both more emotional and more cheap, often in the very same moment.
But, until Naomi’s physical state becomes impossible to ignore, “Centigrade” must first cycle through some familiar beats and tensions. Matt’s obsession with slowly attempting to free a stuck window — not to break it, thus forever damaging their makeshift igloo — is one that works, while his revelation of a minor (in the scheme of things) secret to Naomi, who is hiding her own stuff, feels shunted in to stir up still more drama. Really, though, what more drama do you people need?
At least it allows Rodriguez, who shows early promise of being the MVP of this entire affair and then really delivers on it, to shine bright in increasingly bad circumstances. Surely some of Walsh’s directing tricks helped that along — the film reportedly shot in a giant freezer and saw its stars undergoing diets during shooting, all the better to sell “we are very hungry and also very cold” — but Rodriguez is compelling even in smaller moments.
Saddled with its uneasy seesaw between expectation and occasional inspiration, “Centigrade” never quite breaks the mold (or, forgive us, the ice). Despite a relatively slim 98 minute running time, it starts running out of steam (running cold? help me!) long before its admittedly quite solid conclusion, trapped in tropes that stop cold (there it is!) any chance the film has to solidify beyond its early, chilling ideas.
IFC Midnight releases “Centigrade” on all digital platforms and in select drive-in theaters this Friday, August 28.