Thursday, February 5, 2009
I’ve always liked movies set in wintertime that actually got released during wintertime, particularly thrillers and horror movies. There’s something about those types of genre films that got released in the dead of January that always made me want to get out to the theater on those chilly, snowy weekend afternoons. I still look forward to those films coming out each year even when it’s not so cold here in L.A. So I guess that’s why I wish that WIND CHILL had actually gotten a real release in theaters because I can’t help but think that if Sony/TriStar/Whoever had actually put some effort into selling the thing they might have done ok with it, particularly if they had released it in one of those months where the fear in the cold and snow can really be felt. Instead, it slipped into just a handful of theaters at the end of April 2007, in spite of having Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney as Executive Producers and, maybe more importantly, the fact that it’s not particularly bad at all. If there are any commercial issues with the film it’s that in spite of an R rating, which feels undeserved, it’s fairly light on the gore and you could make the argument that not all that much happens in the end as is usually expected in these films. Instead, it focuses on the mood and dread that the characters feel in their situation, so it feels like the film was punished for no reason other than paying too much attention to the characters. If there were still a late show that people watched it would be a natural for that sort of thing as well. It’s not perfect, but it does at times work extremely well as a thriller that holds your interest.
When a college girl (THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA’s Emily Blunt) decides at the last minute to try to share a ride to get home to Delaware for Christmas break, she accepts a lift from a fellow student she doesn’t know (Ashton Holmes, Viggo Mortensen’s son in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE). She reluctantly makes conversation with him as the ride begins but as he turns into a snowy side road in a valley which he insists is a shortcut it soon becomes apparent that there are a few holes in the things he is saying about himself. But before she can get any answers the two are run off the road by a mysterious car and into a ditch. Unable to get the car out and with night falling as well as the temperature dropping, the girl is now stuck in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone reception, no food and with a guy she doesn’t trust. But as strange occurrences begin to happen she gradually realizes that there is something out there in the woods which neither one of them can fully explain.
WIND CHILL was directed by Gregory Jacobs who usually works as Soderbergh’s First A.D. (a title he still holds on CHE) and previously helmed the not-so-hot NINE QUEENS remake CRIMINAL. Written by Joe Gangemi and Stephen A. Katz, this horror film might best be described as more of a character piece with strong horror elements and, at times extremely well put together, never tries to make its story bigger than necessary. But more than that it’s a surprisingly successful example of one of my favorite types of film—a guy and a girl locked away somewhere together and they have to try to figure each other out in order to make things work. It really is too bad that it never got a real release because the skillful direction and photography deserve to be seen on the big screen--there are a few shots, particularly where something undefined can definitely be seen way over on the other side of the Scope frame that I can imagine would have gotten a cool murmur from a crowd. The way the story is laid out would make it ideal for an hour-long episode of an anthology show but the just under-90 minute running time allows it to spend more time on the characters, something it does a very good job with. Blunt’s unnamed character isn’t always nice, particularly during the opening scenes, but she’s still somehow relatable and always believable in what she does. It’s to the film’s credit that right from the start neither character is necessarily more likable than the other, yet it doesn’t hold back from making both of them slightly off-putting and even a little suspicious. For that matter, there’s a feel to the opening sections that certain things are slightly off—whether for reasons supernatural or not, our guard is already up because the movie is making us feel genuinely uneasy. It even manages the trick of being continually cinematic even when most of it is just taking place in a car. It feels like there was a surprising amount of thought given to the logic of the supernatural aspects of the threat—I’m being deliberately cagey here—with some provocative discussion about Nietzsche’s concept of “Eternal Recurrence” but, interestingly, a few of the more chilling moments are those that can’t really be explained even after the credits roll.
I can imagine a bad test screening with the wrong crowd that may have been why the film didn’t get a full release—not much gore, no giant action ending with a ‘final confrontation’ feel, characters who aren’t instantly likable—but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it. The flaws really are minor, although I could point out that the movie is not always successful convincing me that it’s as cold (or as dark) as it’s supposed to be (it’s hard enough getting these things on film and I’m complaining about that? Doesn’t this movie have enough problems?). And even if some of what is going on outside the car feels like something that has been done before, it still manages to pull off some truly effective moments throughout. As I was watching it fairly riveted I kept waiting for the moment where everything would suddenly fall apart, leading to a lame, anticlimactic finale. That never quite happens but the ending doesn’t feel totally there either. It’s as if it’s trying to find some middle ground between total ambiguity and a slam-bang finale with fireworks the studio probably wanted but where the whole thing lands is slightly off from being 100% effective. It still works pretty well anyway and ultimately I don’t have very many negative things to say about it.
Emily Blunt delivers a fantastic performance that proves her talent as much as anything I’ve seen her in. The coldness she projects early in the film pays off extremely well later when she needs to become more genuinely fearful about the gravity of her situation. As she opens herself up, her character arc even manages to become rather touching. So now I'm even crazier about Emily Blunt than I was already. Holmes, in some ways, has the more difficult role, because he needs to play much of it as if his character could go either way by a certain point and he does a very convincing job of it.
As a short genre exercise that its studio wouldn’t even release, WIND CHILL is surprisingly effective and at the very least deserved better than it got. The scares and atmosphere are present but the amount of attention it pays to its characters may very well be the most memorable thing about it. Even without a climax that is as strong as one would expect the entire film culminates in a final shot which genuinely feels earned. It may not be the typical horror movie ending but it’s still absolutely correct in acknowledging what the film is ultimately about. It’s powerful in its modest way, it stays with me and it’s the sort of touch that these films never seem to have these days. Maybe that’s why it barely got released. But it’s still worth seeing.