Choosing Arctic backdrops to parallel the story of a marriage growing chillier by the minute is certainly not the freshest idea around. But Scott Cohen’s Red Knot exhibits such spot-on, heartbreaking honesty about behaviors that tear many couples apart — passive-aggressiveness, career obsession, seeking validation to soothe one’s inadequacies — that it’s easy to forgive Cohen his metaphorical excesses. Vincent Kartheiser and Olivia Thirlby play newlyweds who opt to spend their honeymoon aboard a vessel bound for the South Pole.
Promising excitement and adventure, Kartheiser instead spends most of the trip enmeshed in research for his upcoming article, chatting up the whaling experts aboard and leaving the perpetually bored Thirlby to stew in their spartan lodgings. By midweek, they’re sleeping in separate bunk beds; by the end of the trip, she’s moved out of their cabin and started flirting with an equally woebegone but hunky captain (Billy Campbell).
Thirlby’s long, slightly pointy face and pouty lips, and her outstanding ability to shift quickly between sassy, impulsively sexual, and unbearably sad, recall the similarly multifaceted Selma Blair. Cohen stages one sequence twice, in which Kartheiser utterly ignores Thirlby at the dinner table, and yet she manages to play both scenes with just enough range in her facial anguish — she’s given no lines either time — that we see the full extent of her character’s anger and hurt. Kartheiser, meanwhile, fleshes out what could have been a throwaway bad-husband role.
As he aches for Thirlby to support his every professional move, you see the vulnerability that likely attracted her to him in the first place. Cohen could have dispensed with some scenery montages. But this is a trenchant, whirlwind mood piece, both more intimate and more hopeful than Blue Valentine.