Movie Review: Suspense steadily heats in ’Cold Weather’

This may sound like a contradiction in terms, but “Cold Weather” is a mumblecore movie with a purpose.

Sure, its twentysomething characters sit around and talk about nothing in particular. They’re unmotivated to work at jobs that don’t exactly matter to them. And writer-director Aaron Katz, a founder of this film genre, isn’t shy about lingering on a shot, such as when his characters are doing nothing more exciting than eating lunch at a park bench along the Oregon coast.

But shots like that set the tone and subtly lure us in. And so when the tension does build — and really, surprisingly, it does — it sneaks up on us. “Cold Weather” steadily shifts while we’re watching it and becomes almost an entirely different film, one that’s compelling in a whole new way.

With his third feature, Katz has taken the detective noir and made it his own. Whereas Rian Johnson made a stylish, verbally flashy noir with the high school mystery “Brick,” “Cold Weather” reinvents the genre in a confidently languid way. Much of the film’s allure comes from the naturalism of its settings, performances and dialogue, and the unflagging believability that marks all his characters’ interactions.

Cris Lankenau stars as Doug, a college dropout who has moved back to Portland to live with his older sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), in a nondescript apartment. They hang out, drink beer and play cards; Doug persuades Gail to ditch work and go whale watching in the middle of the day. Eventually he takes a minimum-wage job at an ice factory, where he befriends his co-worker, Carlos (Raul Castillo), an aspiring DJ. Sometimes, Doug and Gail catch Carlos when he spins at a club at night.

Are you hooked yet?

Things do pick up, though, when Doug’s ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), shows up on a vague business trip from Chicago — and then she’s gone just as quickly as she came. Having studied forensic science during his brief stint in college, Doug is still fascinated by Sherlock Holmes novels. He ends up playing amateur detective — even picking up a pipe to smoke, just for posterity — and, with Carlos and Gail’s help, they try and piece together what they assume are bits of evidence in hopes of tracking Rachel down.

Katz fills “Cold Weather” with many of the usual conventions you’d expect in a thriller or mystery — a code to crack, a stakeout, a car chase — but he uses them more as opportunities to develop his characters and reveal that perhaps they’re more complex, and less shiftless, than we might initially have expected. “Cold Weather” never turns too self-serious, but Doug always takes his mission seriously, and the cool, cloudy blues of Andrew Reed’s cinematography add to the gloomy, moody atmosphere.

The fact that the stakes end up being ridiculously low doesn’t matter. That’s just one more appealing element of the film’s unconventional intrigue.

“Cold Weather,” an IFC Films release, is not rated but contains language and nudity. Running time: 96 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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