I cannot get writer/editor/director Aaron Katz’s newest film, Cold Weather, out of my head. I’ve seen the film three times now, and it makes its Twin Cities premiere this Friday at St. Anthony Main Theatre, presented by the MSP Film Society, and is easily the best American independent film I’ve seen in the first quarter of 2011.
For those unfamiliar with film jargon, “mumblecore” had its moment in the sun a few years ago, coined by a sound editor on an film by Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation). “Mumblecore” has different meanings, but the best way I can describe it is: a low-budget DIY style filmmaking approach, shooting on video instead of 35mm film, working from improvised scripts, and having your friends act in your movies. Katz’s two earlier films, Dance Party U.S.A. and Quiet City both employed the mumblecore technique, but with Cold Weather, Katz seems to have broken that mold and should be considered an exciting and serious American filmmaker to follow for years to come.
Moving back home to Portland after dropping out of college, Doug (Cris Lankenau) moves in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and begins working at an ice factory. There he meets Carlos (Raul Castillo) and the two begin to hang out. Doug mentions his love for detective novels, such as those featuring Sherlock Holmes, and Doug was studying forensics science, as he tells Carlos one day at work. When Doug’s ex-girlfriend Rachel surprisingly arrives in town, Carlos asks Rachel out on a date, and when she doesn’t show up to one of Carlos’s DJ gigs, Carlos begins to worry, although Doug isn’t all that concerned. When no one receives word of Rachel’s whereabouts, Doug puts his amateur sleuthing skills to the test with the help of Carlos and Gail to find his missing ex-girlfriend. Little do they know that the mystery goes deeper, and Doug finds himself in a true film noir, and his life’s not so boring any more.
Katz’s story starts out with just a hint of mystery and seems to be riffing on the malaise of post-college boredom and where one fits into the world, but the film really comes alive when Rachel returns and suddenly disappears. A typical film noir lead actor gives the impression of the seedy lifestyle our “hero” lives by: lazy, foulmouthed, depressed, even a boozer. (Lankenau’s Doug seems to echo Elliot Gould’s turn as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Last Goodbye), but Katz’s characters break those clichés splendidly and Katz finds a deeper connection not just in the central mystery but with the relationship between Doug and Gail, reconnecting and looking for some adventure in their mundane lives.
Keegan Dewitt’s lively musical score, especially his opening theme, brings to mind some wonderful eerie musical scores from years past—those by Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone, Franz Waxman, and Bernard Hermann. Andrew Reed’s crisp RED camera is used with perfection, the best use of the new HD camera I’ve seen yet, making such simple shots as a smoking pipe, a chase scene on foot, and the picturesque gorgeous shot of Doug and Gail standing on a bridge in front of a waterfall among the most striking scenes I’ve seen in recent memory. Portland itself is a character in the film, and that enhances the pleasure of watching Cold Weather on the big screen.
But the film really belongs to Katz and his triple billing: folding together perfectly edited scenes and bringing ordinary scenes to life with sparse dialogue at times, but dead-on in delivery and purpose and finally, for the first time in a quite a while, a plausible mystery that never feels far-fetched and rings true from its opening shot of rain thumping against the window.