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Cold Weather: Watching the Detectives

Sun in Portland and other mysteries, in Cold Weather

An overgrown kid with an inimitable walk that defines "bumbling" — body tilted forward 45 degrees, arms hanging straight down, every other step a bounce — Doug (Cris Lankenau) has dropped out of a forensic science program in Chicago and fled home to green-and-gray Portland, to share an apartment with his older, far less sprightly sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). Their cycles are initially out of sync: She works a desk job while he gets an $8-an-hour night shift post at an ice factory. An untold number of credits away from the degree that would sanction actual detective work, in his free time Doug sinks deep into mysteries — first the romantic version presented in Raffles and Sherlock Holmes novels, and then varieties off the page, of varying stakes.

In Cold Weather, the third indie feature directed by Aaron Katz, low-key comic noir is the unexpectedly higher-concept trapping of the perennial theme of films about undeclared 20-somethings: the gulf between what is happening and what could be happening, and the three-way tension between what one is doing, what they've been made to understand they should be doing, and what they really want to do. Doug is perched — not impatiently or unhappily — on a cusp, and cinematographer Andrew Reed's gorgeous scene-setting urban-landscape shots (a signature of Katz's films dating back to his no-budget debut, Dance Party, U.S.A.) fittingly mostly describe dusks and dawns: in-between times.

Long before Doug's daily adventures involve shady motels and briefcases full of money, his conversations are pregnant with an unease over expectations not being met, and the suspicion that he might be slumming. "I thought you'd do something in a lab," Gail says carefully when Doug announces his new occupation. "Are you sure you're going to be OK in an ice factory?"

As they move ice back and forth across the factory floor, his co-worker Carlos (Raul Castillo) observes, "You just seem like the type who ends up quitting. ... A lot of people want bigger things."

What's shocking is that Doug doesn't actually seem to actively want anything — his simple contentment is enough to mark him as odd. Carlos and Doug eventually bond over the latter's beloved detective novels; confounding both men's expectations, it's the former who declares, "Sherlock Holmes is a pimp!"

When a femme fatale enters, dripping wet from the rain, the film begins to transition from assaying the mysteries of the mundane to dissecting the mundanity of solving a mystery. A climactic speed-limit-and-traffic-light–abiding car chase is the height of activity; most of Doug's detective work involves sitting around thinking, waiting, until one of Doug's Watsons spots the obvious clue, which Sherlock, in all his pimpery, missed. There's no false exposition of the narrative's actual mystery — we see only what Doug sees, and our time with him ends before he's reached an "elementary" conclusion.

Itself an observational relationship comedy, Cold Weather's underlying tension is reminiscent of an old-fashioned comedy of remarriage (considering the emphasis on apparent opposites joining forces in a crisis, His Girl Friday might be the best analogue), in that the familiar and the unknown are in constant conflict. There is a ghosting of boy-girl romance here — Doug's ex-girlfriend reappears under vague, charged circumstances; then, just as her presence is starting to become absorbed in the fabric of his new life, she disappears — but this is not first among Katz's priorities, and Cold Weather is a stronger, more unusual film for it. Playing on the twist element of mystery fiction without actually contorting much in terms of story, Cold Weather slyly explores the ways in which known quantities can have the greatest propensity to startle.

The same could be said of the filmmaker. Katz has been branded as a practitioner of mumblecore, the term coined roughly six years ago to describe a wave of loosely connected, lower-than-low-budget films including Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs, Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation and the Duplass brothers' The Puffy Chair.

The directors have admitted that the label has been somewhat useful, at least in terms of shining an initial spotlight and offering continued access to attention. But if you went into Cold Weather not knowing that the film is a de facto part of that legacy by virtue of having been directed by Katz — whose previous pictures premiered at SXSW during mumblecore mania, were shot cheaply on video and are so naturalistically conversational that they hardly feel "directed" at all until one of those startling landscape shots pops up — Cold Weather wouldn't tell you. Produced for a still low but significantly higher budget than Katz's last film, Quiet City, Cold Weather — big in aesthetic ambition and microscopic in concern — defies genre-as-shorthand, making good on the promise that Katz's tendency toward punctuational beauty has been pointing to all along.

COLD WEATHER | Written and directed by AARON KATZ | IFC Films | Sunset 5

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