Doug, the drowsy and feckless hero of Aaron Katz's vivid and sly movie Cold Weather, is a young man new to Portland, which means he could really use a job. He has an education in forensic science, but no degree, and he settles for a night shift at an ice factory. "I didn't even know they had ice factories," remarks his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) skeptically. "Where do you think they get those bags of ice that you buy?" asks Doug (Cris Lankenau). âI donât know, I never thought about it,â she admits.
Cold Weather, an unusually observant picture, thinks about details. You might say Katz and his protagonist share an affinity for clues: About midway through the movie, Doug learns his ex-girlfriend (Robyn Rikoon) has flown her motel room, and puts his detective skills to work. Katz, meanwhile, patiently feeds us information about Doug, who typifies the Portland resident sketched by a fresh tide of indie projects (this film, Portlandia and Some Days Are Better Than Others) as somebody whose ambition got lost by the airline on the flight out here. The private-eye-as-slacker is no new archetype—think of Elliott Gould shambling through Altman's The Long Goodbye, or Jeff Bridges in several iterations—but Doug is the first case of a slacker mesmerized by the image of gumshoeing, and its accouterments: A Sherlock Holmes buff, he even buys a pipe to puff on while the game is afoot. This description makes him sound fairly insufferable, but as played by Lankenau, his scattershot enthusiasm is in fact endearing. Watch, early on, how he persuades Gail to abandon her office desk for a road trip along the Oregon coast: "It's whale-watching week!"
Watching is a Katz speciality: His first two features, Dance Party, USA and Quiet City, got him pinned under the "mumblecore" label, but notice how fluidly his camera moves through a scene, picking up speed and momentum to build tension. Cold Weather congeals into something very close to a potboiler—the characters stake out a pornographer with a briefcase, track him through storage towers, and fool him with disguises—but all the while, the director is looking in the opposite direction. He's studying the stirrings of empathy, as Doug starts to realize that Gail, though fathoms more mature and poised than he is, may also be a little lonely, and enjoying the company as much as the case. The movie, a small-scale triumph of humor and feeling, is the first to understand how, in an era when social supports come easily unglued, siblings are the family you get to choose. It's no mystery, Sherlock: Who needs Watson when you have a sister?