“Dude, you know about these kind of things.”
“What kind of things?”
—dialogue from Cold Weather
Is there life after mumblecore—the American alt-cinema movement christened and then eulogized in publications like this before even most cinephiles had heard of it? Aaron Katz’s shaggy-dog detective story Cold Weather offers compelling evidence in the affirmative. A hipster-slacker Long Goodbye set in a rapturously wintry Portland, Katz’s third feature marries the gift for casual observation evident in his DIY boy-meets-girl stories Dance Party, USA (06) and Quiet City(07) to a vibrant narrative playfulness, an authentic tension, and an almost classical formal elegance. The result is a laconic yet gripping mystery that also functions as a sly commentary on the need for mystery in our lives.
Returning home in an existential funk after dropping out of college and breaking up with his girlfriend, former forensic science major Doug (Quiet City star Cris Lankenau) moves in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and signs on for the night shift at a local ice factory—which has got to be one of the great dead-end jobs in movie history. But the position gives Doug time to indulge his true obsession, the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle (expressly the stories and not the Basil Rathbone movies), a passion he soon imparts to his genial co-worker, Carlos (Raúl Castillo). By which point, it’s clear that we’re looking at the least likely surrogate Holmes and Watson since George C. Scott’s quixotic widower teamed up with Joanne Woodward’s logic-minded psychoanalyst in Anthony Harvey and James Goldman’s massively underrated 1971 film They Might Be Giants.
The case at hand is a disappearance, specifically that of Doug’s ex-girlfriend (Robyn Rikoon), who arrives in town on a supposed errand for a Chicago law firm and then, as if on cue—as if Doug had somehow willed it—vanishes from her hotel room. A trail of clues emerges in the form of a notepad scrawled with coded numbers, a strange man in a cowboy hat and pickup truck, and a briefcase filled with money. In an effort to sharpen his concentration, a confounded Doug sets out to buy himself a Holmesian pipe, a wonderful nod to the way we project ourselves into the books we read and, indeed, the movies we see.
If the MacGuffin is what holds Cold Weather together, the enormous pleasure of the film derives from the interplay of the actors—especially the scruffily deadpan Lankenau and the pensive, fastidious Dunn, finding time for family bonding amidst the detective work—and from Katz’s fluid craftsmanship. One of the brightest lights of the mumblecore scene, Katz here shows himself to also be one of the few American directors of his generation (he is 29) with a strong sense of composition and movement, sound design as suspense, landscape as character. By the end of the film, one mystery is solved (more or less), and clues to an even greater one have appeared on the horizon: what the future of American independent cinema might look like.