Cheerfully diffident, garrulous yet uninflected, blithely self-absorbed, the mumblecore brand proliferates: Last year’s star vehicles Greenberg and Cyrus introduced the concept of mega-mumble. The low-budget musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench pioneered mumble-chord; Tiny Furniture was part psycho-drumble, part sit-cumble. Premiering with the latter at last spring’s South by Southwest Festival, Cold Weather, Aaron Katz’s Portland, Oregon–set junior detective mystery, stakes a claim as the founding work of mumble-noir.
The 29-year-old Katz’s two previous features, Dance Party, USA (2006) and Quiet City (2007), oxymoronic titles both, established him as an offbeat miniaturist even by mumble terms. Exhibiting no particular rush to draw the viewer into its world, Cold Weather opens with college drop-out, mildly shambolic Doug (Cris Lankenau, more or less reprising his role from Quiet City) and his older, somewhat more responsible sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), with whom he now lives, preparing dinner for their parents. They’re twentysomething children (and, anyway, table-setting is this movie’s middle name).
Having abandoned plans to become a forensic scientist, if not his boyish fascination with Sherlock Holmes, Doug takes a minimum-wage job at an ice factory by the railroad tracks, where he bonds with Carlos (Raúl Castillo), an aspiring DJ. The social network is complete when Doug’s ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), returns to Portland on an undisclosed mission from Chicago. Doug and Rachel meet for coffee—she asks him if he likes living with Gail better than living with her. (Typically, he doesn’t know.) Carlos happens to have an extra ticket for a Star Trek convention; he invites Doug, who, elaborately uninterested, suggests that he take Rachel in his stead. She accepts but then disappears. . . . We’re plunged into the world of mystery, although, as Pacific Northwest enigmas go, Cold Weather is not exactly Twin Peaks. (In a way, it’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.)
Katz’s characters are as naturalistically boring as their conversations are purposefully banal—largely concerned, in the mumblecore manner, with self-questioning. People wonder what they should say or do. For the movie’s first half, the action is largely a matter of hanging out, something Doug is always happy to do. Still, Katz keeps his camera close and mobile, just in case anything should happen. The lackadaisical atmosphere is heightened by the cutaways known as “pillow shots” in the Ozu oeuvre: Melancholy local color is provided by inserted views of lowering skies, rainy woods, empty beaches, and skyline at dusk. (The real terra incognita is childhood.)
Irony is very low-key. As a would-be detective, Doug seems oblivious to the most obvious clues and procedures; initially, the search for Rachel is driven mainly by Carlos’s anxiety. Once the game is afoot, Doug decides to buy a Sherlockian pipe to help him think—he can afford only the cheapest one in the store and forgets to purchase tobacco. Cold Weather has a lot less attitude than the not-dissimilar HBO series Bored to Death, in which Jason Schwartzman’s would-be writer turned Craigslist private eye plumbs the secrets of hipster Brooklyn—or, rather, the attitude is less adolescent than juvenile, more predicated on sibling solidarity than any sort of sexual curiosity. The most unaccountable thing about Cold Weather is how, all but operating behind his own back, Katz manages to distill a sense of the uncanny from an empty motel room, a mystery pickup truck, a dubious website, and the only palm tree in Portland.
Steadily building in intensity from sluggish interest to mild excitement, Cold Weather is a slight movie with a long, circuitous fuse—and that’s the point. Katz is something of a trickster, closer in spirit to Jacques Rivette than Raymond Chandler; his movie is not a riff on mystery stories so much as it is a riff, pure and simple, on the mystery of stories.