Monday, August 22, 2011

Cold Weather

I love Portland, Oregon. It's been nearly four years since I've lived there, but it still holds a special place in my heart. There's something captivating about the green and grey of the northwest weather. There are trees and rivers and mountains and roses and people, beautifully quirky people. The rivers frame the city, with bridges interlacing its waterways like strands of an intricate spiderweb. Each bridge is unique in its design, with its own story and pedestrians crossing its concrete pathways. They call Portland "Bridgetown" for a reason. I miss it.

Bridges play a critical role in Aaron Katz's subtle indie film Cold Weather, both in the literal and the figurative. The bridges of Portland are traversed and referred to numerous times in the film. Relational bridges are also built between characters--friends, family, and lovers find themselves drawn to each other in ever-increasing connections. Bridges also must be cognitively created to unearth a mystery, as Cold Weather is a thriller at heart.

Doug is a mid-20s guy moving back to Portland from Chicago after a stint studying forensics in college. His sister, Gail, offers to give him a place to stay at her apartment. He sleeps on Gail's couch and gets a job working at an ice factory. "Where do you think they get those bags of ice in grocery stores?" Doug quips when questioned about his vocational goals. He befriends a guy at work named Carlos and they begin to hang out. Doug lends Carlos his Sherlock Holmes books; Carlos enjoys them. Doug's former girlfriend, Rachel, comes into town for her job. The four people begin spending time together; Carlos is a part-time DJ, so they go out dancing. Carlos asks Doug if it's okay to bring Rachel to a Star Trek convention with him. Doug is fine with that--his relationship with Rachel is entirely platonic at this point.

This is all that happens in the first half of the film. It's slow. Boring, even. Yet this is ordinary life for ordinary people who are so authentically portrayed in this film that I often forgot I was watching a movie. These characters feel natural and true. I believe this slow-pacing is intentional, leading up to the quietly thrilling second act. When Rachel doesn't show up for a date with Carlos, he bursts into Doug's apartment filled with paranoia. Doug instantly regrets giving Carlos those Sherlock Holmes books. Carlos knows that Doug was studying forensics, so he solicits his friend's help in solving this conundrum. "You're good at this kind of thing!" Carlos exclaims. "What thing?" Doug asks. "Mysteries...."

And what a mystery! It never crosses the realm into incredulity, but it neither left me bored or wanting more. As Doug, Carlos, and Gail begin to investigate the mystery behind Rachel's disappearance, the tension slowly rises. The audience cares about these characters--we've spent half the movie just hanging out with them--so when trouble shows up, we're drawn into their fear and excitement. Doug, who has been dragging his feet through life until this point, suddenly comes alive with a sense of urgency and purpose. From sleazy motels to downtown libraries to abandoned pay-phones to the large U-Store building off I-84, Doug navigates each new situation with a quietly frantic energy. I was enthralled.

(Spoiler: as a content warning, the mystery leads the friends to a porn company at one point, so there were some brief explicit images.)

I instantly recognized Doug and Gail's SE Portland neighborhood. I'm pretty sure I've seen that ice factory before. A climactic scene takes place in a restaurant only minutes from my former home (the Montage, if you're wondering). I could see how people unfamiliar with Portland wouldn't enjoy this film, calling it navel-gazing and boring. But I fell in love with it. While Portland itself plays a pivotal role in creating the quietly engaging tone of Cold Weather, it is the engaging script and wonderful characters that held my attention, building a bridge that spans more than water and engages the heart.

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