Friday, May 9, 2014
The Cold Lands
Tom Gilroy directed a little gem called "Spring Forward" that snuck onto my top-ten list at the tail end of 2000.
It starred Ned Beatty as Murph, a veteran of Connecticut park maintenance, and a young Liev Schreiber as Paul, a recent ex-con teamed with Murph for this first job out of stir. The film followed Murph and Paul over a year of changing seasons and conversations petty and grandiose, and Gilroy, a playwright and character actor making his directorial debut, showed both the ability to frame scenes of striking natural beauty and an uncommon sensitivity to the interaction of man with nature. Some of those strengths are in evidence in his second feature, "The Cold Lands," which today ends a weeklong run at the Downtown Independent.
A newcomer named Silas Yelich plays Atticus, an early adolescent who lives with his mom, Nicole (the always terrific Lili Taylor), in a deeply forested area of the Catskill Mountains. Nicole tries to instill strong morals and self-sufficiency in Atticus, and he needs them when she dies early in the picture from a diabetic attack. Rather than risk placement in the foster care system, Atticus wanders the woods, subsisting on whatever edible food he gleans. One night, he finds himself outside a makeshift meth lab, where the paranoid owner comes after him with a gun. He's pulled to safety by Carter (Peter Scanavino), a stoner who'd been there tending his pot plants. Carter has - but quickly loses - a groundskeeping job at a country club, and makes gemstone "wraps" that he sells at local concerts. Carter treats Atticus as well as he can, but money's hand-to-mouth, and there's always the chance he'll turn the kid in for the reward.
Gilroy’s film is at its best when the dialogue is kept to a minimum, patiently painting a portrait of one young man’s tumbleweed existence. Some of the conversations ring false, as when Nicole mentions Elvis and Atticus asks, “What’s an Elvis?” “The Justin Bieler of my time,” she replies. (Taylor’s not THAT old!) As the focus shifts to Carter, Yelich’s quiet introspection gives way to alternatingly flat and whiny line readings. And while a single scene between the ghost of a deceased mother and the son she left behind can be deeply powerful – as in Keith Gordon’s first-rate 1988 film of “The Chocolate War” -- here Nicole shows up so many times it becomes almost a running joke. “The Cold Lands” has the raw material for a great film, and I hoped to love it as I did “Spring Forward,” but somehow it doesn’t quite come off.