Katz polishes mumblecore moniker

With Cold Weather, director Aaron Katz has graduated from the derogatory label of the mumblecore movement — a title given to several filmmakers grouped together from the early 2000s, including Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, and the Duplass brothers. Personal and low-budget filmmaking earned them equal part acclaim and ridicule for their revealing focus on the minutiae of young American adult lives and relationships.

For the most part I’ve enjoyed the films of the so-called mumblecore movement, because they feel homemade in an invigorating way — a result in part due to the accessibility of filmmaking brought about after the liberating advent of digital cameras.

I can understand the hesitancy of some towards their work; they are, after all, more focused on capturing authentic moments than about connecting plot points together, and as such are more challenging to critique because they ignore the systematic rules of mainstream storytelling.

Another common grumble from critics about mumblecore is that the movies are filmed without regard to style on shaky, grainy digital cameras, which is an impossible complaint to make about Cold Weather with its graceful cinematography, coolly lit by Andrew Reed.

Katz’s first two films, 2006’s Dance Party, USA and 2007’s Quiet City, were similarly gentle features documenting the emotional and environmental landscapes of listless twenty-somethings. They succeeded on their own small terms, authentically portraying the lackadaisical feelings of young adults drifting comfortably through their lives.

In Cold Weather, however, Katz has raised the stakes; this time, there’s something of a plot for his characters to drift along with, and it’s a detective mystery at that. The result is a more focused effort, and one that still retains the playful charm of his previous work.

The film follows a college dropout named Doug (Cris Lankenau) who’s recently moved back home to Portland, Oregon to live with his sister (Trieste Kelly Dunn). Doug has an obsession with Sherlock Holmes stories — he was a forensic-science major — and works at an ice factory where he befriends a charismatic co-worker, Carlos (Raúl Castillo). One day, Doug’s ex-girlfriend (Robyn Rikoon) goes missing, and he and Carlos clumsily investigate her disappearance, as if inspired by the characters from the legendary Conan Doyle books.

Where a more traditional film might start with Doug’s missing ex-girlfriend, Cold Weather deliberately takes forty minutes — a little less than half its running time — before the inciting event even takes place. It’s a striking choice that gives us the chance to know the endearing characters before the mechanics of the plot sets in.

At its center, Cold Weather is a detective film (there’s a missing girl, a money-filled briefcase, a stakeout, and even the hint of a conspiracy) — just one absent of the glamour and romance we’ve come to expect from the gumshoe genre. It’s filled instead with all the ordinary moments that make up real lives, moments that would be cut from more commercially minded films — such as Doug buying a pipe because he’s convinced it will help him think like Sherlock Holmes.

The detective aspects are dealt with an authentic messiness, and the general effect feels impressively grounded in reality. It’s as if the characters from Katz’s previous films accidentally stumbled into a genre film, still uncertain of how to act as adults, much less detectives.

The detective work is only enhanced by the film’s real pulse, which lies within its moments of connection between characters. It’s a pleasure watching Doug and Carlos’ friendship bloom as they discuss Sherlock Holmes while moving ice from one side of a room to the other, or Doug and his sister dropping grapes mischievously from atop their roof to see them splatter on a drizzly day. The measured pace steps outside the conventions of its genre and gives a subtle air of sophistication.

If the polished aesthetic of Cold Weather is any indication of where the mislabeled mumblecores are headed — and based on the impressive recent output of both Swanberg and Bujalski, it is — then perhaps it’s finally time to retire the mumblecore label, once and for all.