2013 // USA // Tze Chun // November 15, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Landmark Tivoli Theatre)
One of the most appealing aspects of the noir genre is its sheer simplicity. Only a handful of vivid, well-worn character types are usually necessary: the world-weary antihero, the dame in distress, the icy killer-for-hire, the high-strung snitch, the underworld kingpin. The appearance of a single, destabilizing factor is often all that is needed to incite such fallen souls towards a unavoidable and usually lethal collision. That factor can be almost any unexpected element, such as a freshly unearthed secret or the sudden death of a keystone character. However, for his sophomore feature, writer-director Tze Chun employs the genre's most reliable wild card, a big pile of cash.
Elsewhere, Cold Comes the Night—and what a deliciously Chandler-esque title that is—pursues some intriguing variations on noir conventions. The screenplay by Chun, Oz Perkins and Nick Simon combines the down-and-out protagonist (usually male) and the enigmatic woman-in-need into a single character. That individual is motel manager and single mother Chloe (Alice Keys), a worn-out survivor in a slushy New York town battered by economic decline. Keys recently appeared in Star Trek Into Darkness, but fortunately, Cold Comes the Night permits her a more substantial role than a sex object for a leering Starfleet captain. Chloe is a compelling and conflicted protagonist, visibly enervated by a young life that is already heavy with hardship. Keys' portrayal leans too strongly on Chloe's ferocious, almost amoral devotion to her daughter Sophia (Ursula Parker) at the expense of a more rounded characterization. Still, working-class female antiheroes are enough of a novelty that it is intriguing just to watch Chloe react to familiar crime thriller scenarios.
Mother and daughter dwell in an apartment attached to a fleabag motel known as a nexus for prostitution and drug dealing. Between changing sheets and scrubbing toilets, Chloe spends her time sparring with Social Services and warding off her infatuated ex Billy (Logan Marshall-Green), a crooked local cop. Chloe's already-tough existence turns into a nightmarish ordeal when she crosses paths with Polish criminal Topo (Bryan Cranston), a bagman on his way to deliver a bundle of shrink-wrapped U.S. cash to a Québécois crime lord. Due to a series of misfortunes and Coen-worthy fuckups, the legally blind Topo has been stranded at Chloe's motel and stuck with a dead driver, impounded vehicle, and missing package. He decides that his least-bad option is to take Chloe hostage to provide a pair of eyes for his time-sensitive errand. The woman at first consents out of pure terror for her daughter's safety, but Chloe is accustomed to scraping and clawing for any narrow advantage she can find. Eventually she talks the stone-faced, ruthless Topo into giving up a slice of his fee in return for her assistance.
Unforeseen developments and old-fashioned bad luck seem to stymie Chloe and Topo at every turn, as tends to occur in fiasco-rich crime fables of this sort. The pair eventually discovers that Billy has swiped the money and stashed it in his own home, which complicates things, given that the corrupt cop still has a throbbing (and misogynistic) obsession with Chloe. The story is ugly, savage stuff. Whatever criticisms one has of the film, Cold Comes the Night does not pull any punches. The one sacrosanct character in the tale is Sophia, who is threatened by Topo but not subjected to direct, overt violence. Depending on how one looks at it, this either indicates that Chun and his co-writers have at least a shred of humanity, or that they lack the courage to tell a truly scorched-earth story of moral depravity.
Cold Comes the Night has one glaring narrative problem, and it comes slamming to the forefront in the third act, not coincidentally when Marshall-Green's portrayal of Billy veers from "charming but volatile asshole" to "bug-eyed, rambling lunatic." Although there is a rationale within the story for the character's sudden breakdown, the switch is so jarring and Marshall-Green's performance is so over-the-top that the entire film is dragged kicking and screaming into unintentional hilarity.
Although this is an unfortunate and terribly distracting flaw, it's not one that defeats Cold Comes the Night. In most respects, the film is quite a viscerally engrossing and formally polished work. Cinematographer Noah Rosenthal and production designer Laurie Hicks capture the environs of wintery New York state in all its gray, sodden glory, and the score by Jeff Grace conveys a fitting, doleful mood with a slightly embittered edge. However, the motel setting feels like a missed opportunity: the filmmakers fail to exploit the spatial potential of the the dingy, adjoining, nearly-identical rooms as was done so effectively in the likes of Psycho and No Country for Old Men. In fact, the action that occurs at the motel rarely strays beyond Chloe's apartment.
Holding the proceedings together is the pairing of Keys and Cranston, who quickly establish the dynamic of a fearful prisoner and cruel warden, and then work for the remainder of the film to twist the relationship this way and that. Cranston is not doing anything he hasn't done before, but he does it with an unexpected restraint and cold-bloodedness in this film. (There is barely a whisper of Walter White's boiling resentment in Topo.) Most crucially, while the gangster is more textured and sympathetic than the standard Bad Guy, both the screenplay and Chun's direction make it clear that Cold Comes the Night is Chloe's tale. Ultimately, the questions that concern the viewer are whether she will survive the film's bloody events, and, if so, how battered she will be in body and spirit when she escapes into the night.