Holmes Improvement

Amy Taubin on Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather

Aaron Katz, Cold Weather, 2010, still from a color film in HD, 97 minutes. Gail and Doug (Trieste Kelly Dunn and Cris Lankenau).

AARON KATZ’S DANCE PARTY, USA (2006) is in the top ten of my Best High School Movies list. His third and latest, Cold Weather has one of the subtlest last lines ever, and when I can find where I buried that particular list, I’ll add it in. “There’s something at the beginning of this,” says Doug, our protagonist, to his sister Gail, who’s sitting next to him in the front seat of his car. There’s barely time for the words to register before the screen goes black. Doug is referring specifically to an old mixtape that he’s trying to play, but he could also be talking about their relationship, how what happened that day renewed their childhood bond and also concluded it, and that what’s ahead is the beginning of their life as connected but independent adults.

Katz is one of American indie cinema’s most talented lyric poets. Delicate and utterly beguiling, his movies coalesce around fleeting images and bits of casual conversation layered with meaning. Cold Weather, like Dance Party, USA and Quiet City (2007), is a movie about how people who are not quite sure of who they are find themselves through the process of making connections—however tentative and oblique—with others. Cold Weather adds a new element. About a third of the way through, it turns into a rescue-the-maiden thriller, a genre movie as it could be playfully imagined and enacted by devotees of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.

And of Sherlock Holmes—the stories, not the movies. Doug (Cris Lankenau) has dropped out of college just short of getting a degree in forensic science and is crashing in the Portland, Oregon, apartment of his slightly older sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). He gets a job in an ice factory, where he strikes up a friendship with Carlos (Raúl Castillo) and spends the rest of his time lounging on the couch reading the Sherlock Holmes books that were his boyhood favorites and that he also lends to Carlos. Just when the movie threatens to become slackerish, Doug’s former girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) arrives in town. Carlos asks her on a date (with Doug’s permission) and when she doesn’t show, he’s convinced there’s been foul play. Ridiculous, says Doug, until he glimpses a guy in a pickup truck watching the motel room from which Rachel has vanished and seizes the opportunity to become the Holmes of his imagination for real.

In the hands of a lesser writer-director, the Holmes/forensic science backstory would feel forced and unbelievable, since Doug seems constitutionally averse to questioning anything—neither himself nor the outside world. But Katz, aided enormously by Lankenau’s subtle performance, lays a trail of psychological clues—in effect turning the viewer into a detective—so that one realizes that Doug idolizes Holmes precisely because his own curiosity has been somehow stunted; he probably studied forensic science in the hope of overcoming his inhibition, but it’s been to no avail, until the changes in his circumstances and pure chance free him to act on his desires and intuition.

Katz is a triple threat, his editing every bit as important as his writing and directing for his movies’ sense of place, shifting tonalities, and emotional vibrations. He’s a master of abrupt cuts and big temporal ellipses. The best joke in Cold Weather is the shot that’s omitted from the final caper, but how can you laugh out loud at something that’s not on the screen? Eight minutes into the movie, having set a brisk pace—despite the absence of action—by clipping scenes short of where they seem to be leading, he allows a single shot to run a full sixty seconds. Doug has persuaded Gail to play hooky from work and drive to the ocean with him. We see them in long shot sitting at a picnic table, too far away to hear what, if anything, they might be saying. The sky is overcast, as it almost always is in this very Portland movie, and its variegated gray-blue is only slightly distinct from the variegated blue-gray of the surf. (Cold Weather was exquisitely lensed by Andrew Reed, Katz’s regular cinematographer, using the RED camera.) A gull is circling them, trying to pick off the remains of their sandwiches. Toward the end of the shot, a bit of Keegan DeWitt’s bouncy but ever so faintly ominous score kicks in and carries over to the next shot of the sibs as they drive back to the city. With those sixty seconds, Katz allows us to enter the world of the movie of our own volition. By the time Doug says his last line, “There’s something in the beginning of this,” I want to go back again to rediscover exactly what that something is.

Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather opens Friday, February 4, at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.