For a lot of critics, what defines a film as “mumblecore,” besides an ultra low budget and even moreso than supposedly shaky camerawork and inaudible dialogue, is an exploration of limbo: directionless characters, ambiguous relationships, speech filled with missteps and false starts. These and similar descriptors usually aren’t meant flatteringly: if the characters don’t know what they want to say, the argument goes, how can the film itself? This line of questioning conflates the lives of creator and protagonist — easy to do, I guess, since in many of these films, both are in a post-college, pre-career state.
But for me, the defining limbo of this not-quite-a-movement has always been that of the audience, not that of the characters. We see, say, a protagonist making out with a character we’ve never seen before. We wonder who the fuck that is, why they’re there, what this means to them both. We keep watching to find out, but the couple onscreen knows perfectly well. Then, when we solve that little mystery — revealed to us offhand or at least undramatically, because for those onscreen it’s really no revelation at all — we feel a little thrust of narrative that propels us as much forwards as back. And all this without much “happening” at all.
Mysteries of a similar sort pepper Cold Weather, the sixth film from mumblecore director Aaron Katz. The film follows a recent college dropout majoring in forensic science (Chris Lankenau as Doug) who moves to Portland and, for no particular reason, finds a job in an ice factory. At a dinner scene early in the film, it’s unclear if the woman he’s eating with (Trieste Kelly Dunn as Gail) is his date, friend, or sister, as Doug slightly awkwardly (his modus operandi, actually) explains his aspirations to two parent-looking characters across the table. When Doug meets for coffee with his ex Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), who’s visiting from Chicago, it seems like they still like like each other, but we’re not really sure. When his coworker Carlos (Raúl Castillo) asks if it’s really okay if he takes Rachel to a Star Trek convention, we’re not sure if Carlos has any budding romantic interest in her or how Doug would feel about it if he did.
Figuring out Doug and his small circle of friends is satisfying enough detective work for the film’s first half, which unfolds so naturally you might think it was just meandering. But when Doug and Carlos discover a shared love of Sherlock Holmes stories — the two characters finding the intersection of a forensic science/sci-fi dork Venn diagram — it’s not just a moment of bonding. Soon, Rachel goes missing; Doug buys a pipe; and he, Gail, and Carlos investigate.
Cold Weather’s second half is full of code breaking, stakeouts, disguises, and getaway cars, but what’s most impressive about its transformation from character-driven drama to smart detective thriller is how natural the transition — if there actually is one — feels. The mystery’s simply shifted, and the characters are now just as in the dark as we are. Andrew Reed’s decidedly unshaky cinematography — full of glacially slow zooms and a palette of cold greens and blues that flatter the gloom of the Portland mise-en-scenery — is at once dramatic and understated. And Katz’s direction — deliberate, clear, and yet devoid of much exposition — makes the non-developments in the film’s first half intriguing while keeping the riddle-solving in the second half from ever feeling contrived.
I’d praise Katz’s film by saying it breaks out of its genre’s mold, but I wouldn’t know which genre I meant. In Cold Weather, the difference between not much happening and a car chase is nil. Doug turns out to be a savvy detective, but when the riddles are over, he still works at an ice factory.