One great thing about covering the rise of digital DIY independent filmmaking is that over time you get to see a filmmaker grow and mature into their development of a signature style. This process ultimately reveals whether or not the filmmaker really has the chops for a continued career, and if they have anything new to say after their first couple of films. Aaron Katz seems to have quite the career ahead of him as his latest, Cold Weather, signifies something of a great leap forward in his development as an artist.
If you’re not familiar with Aaron Katz, he’s one of a group of filmmakers associated, albeit reluctantly, with the mumblecore film “movement,” a brand of indie filmmaking associated with (mostly) digital film aesthetics, minimal budgets, the frequent use of unprofessional actors, and often dialogue-driven character pieces revolving around individuals in their late 20s and early 30s. You’ll notice there’s a lot of qualifying in my description, and that’s because for every characteristic of mumblecore filmmaking there’s an aspect of one of its entries that doesn’t quite fit this preordained mold. Of course, mumblecore has many detractors and has frequently been dismissed as an extended exercise in portraying the trials and tribulations of young, entitled, white liberal self-involved characters. While this may indeed characterize an entry here or there, the simple truth is that mumblecore is like any independent film “movement”: it has its good films and its bad films, its essential entries and its forgettable efforts.
Katz’s work, while certainly not for everybody, has been at least very interesting. Unlike the perceived and sometimes aptly characteristic talkiness associated with most mumblecore, Katz’s films often literalize the “mumble” portion, featuring long stretches of time where characters say little as if Katz were intending to illustrate exclusively those moments in life film’s otherwise don’t show. His first feature, Dance Party USA (2006), while unassumingly emotionally complex, felt like a short film that simply happened to be feature length. His second feature, the touching Quiet City (2007), carried an emotional arc perfectly aligned with its narrative and aesthetic minimalism.
Cold Weather is uniquely Katz’s even as seems to abandon those minimalist attributes that defined the filmmaker’s previous work. Taking place in Portland, Oregon, Cold Weather introduces us to Doug (Chris Lankenau of Quiet City), a former forensics major who dropped out of college and has just moved in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) before he lands a night shift at an ice factory. His ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) comes into town for business training and after they hang out a few days with his sister along with his coworker/new buddy Carlos (Raul Castillo), Rachel suddenly goes missing.
Everything up to this point might seem like standard fare albeit a bit more confidently polished than Katz’s previous work. I mean this in a good way. The pace that’s established is certainly deliberate, and this allows Katz to construct the Pacific Northwest as something of a character of its own, the still or only slightly mobile camera exploring the spaces of the rainy woods and the mechanically picturesque factory (the angles complement the frame nicely) in a way that approaches the territory of Antonioni’s preoccupation with the juxtaposition of industry and landscapes or Weerasethakul’s fascination with otherwise banal utilitarian technology. But once the mystery gets started, the film really takes off. Lankenau’s unassuming shoegazing demeanor gives way to a convincingly adept detective (his open love of Sherlock Holmes novels inspired his pursuit of forensics). He collaborates with Carlos and Gail with palpable chemistry, even if their involvement with the mystery is motivated mostly by an unstated boredom manifested with slight doses of humor throughout the film. But despite the fact that Katz for the first time surrounds his “amateur” lead with professional actors, Lankenau still commands the screen despite the fact that nothing up to this point defines him as commanding at all.
When independent self-expression meets genre play, original and intriguing works like this can be made. Cold Weather is far more engrossing than anyone would expect the films associated with Katz’s label to be. The stakes, mind you, are not as high as they often are in more mainstream examples of genre, and one is certainly better served knowing what to expect from Katz’s work before going into this film rather than thinking of Cold Weather as a “mystery” movie. That said, I literally sat on the edge of my seat in the last ten minutes of this film – not with some overwhelming fear about the characters’ fate, but because I wanted them to accomplish so badly what it is they set out to accomplish. I was hooked, and on the film’s terms.
Katz’s style here shows a considerable degree of maturation. In each of his three films, there’s been a significant jump in his control of mise en scene, and in Cold Weather the framing of the elements is as intricately commanding as the narrative it portrays. While all the film’s shooting was undeniably done on location, the camera (moving rarely and, when it does, ever so slightly) thoroughly constructs this variety of working-class landscapes (motels, tiny apartments, a storage facility, factories) and the nature of Oregon with a keen eye that suggests we’re seeing everything exactly as Katz intends just as the mystery unravels at the pace he dictates (by contrast, his previous work felt more on-the-fly). The film’s control of color (cinematographer Andrew Reed used a Red One camera) similarly distinguishes this from the director’s previous work, as washed-out layers of green (from nature to the lights outside the motel) create a dense atmosphere and a sustained tone. Keegan DeWitt’s score complements this effort and becomes increasingly disjointed the deeper the characters go into unraveling the story.
Cold Weather is an engaging and inventive act of genre-tweaking with no bells and whistles attached, and it represents a huge leap forward for an increasingly promising filmmaker.
The Upside: For what it’s worth, it’s the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.
The Downside: While Cold Weather is undoubtedly far more scripted than Katz’s previous work (and benefits from this), the improvised moments feel transparently “improvised.” Also, I’m not sure the brother-sister relationship dynamic in the third act really sells itself as successfully as it intends to.
On the Side: In inventing an equally meaningless term, Cold Weather could be described as “mysterycore” or “mumblestry.”