By Thomas Puhr.

Maybe not all true stories, however incredible, are well suited for cinematic adaptation; I would rather have seen a documentary about these events.”

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate new films from COVID-19. Any 2020 release in which characters find themselves confined to small spaces (Relic) or confronted with death (She Dies Tomorrow) instantly calls the pandemic to mind. Brendan Walsh’s survivalist thriller, Centigrade (2020), is no exception. In it, a husband and wife are trapped indefinitely in a snowbound car. The obvious parallels to many people’s current feelings of isolation and entrapment speak for themselves. Admittedly, the stuck-in-one-place subgenre is nothing new, its entries ranging from the exceptional (127 Hours, 2010), to the instantly forgettable (ATM, 2012), to the borderline parodic (247° F, 2011; a guilty pleasure of mine, in which some vacationers find themselves locked in a sauna). Despite its eerie prescience, Walsh’s feature debut ultimately falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

The narrative begins inside the already-frozen car. By foregoing any exposition, Walsh successfully plunges us into this absurd situation (it may come as a surprise that a real 2002 incident inspired the film). We quickly learn that Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez) and Matt (Vincent Piazza) have slept through a blizzard while parked on the side of a remote Norwegian highway, awakening inside what is essentially a cube of frozen snow. Naturally, the engine won’t start. To make matters worse, Naomi is pregnant and rapidly approaching her due date. Walsh wisely avoids hysterics in these early scenes, allowing the duo to react with bewilderment and politely suppressed panic rather than immediate terror (many will cringe when Naomi casually eats half of their only sandwich).

Besides some intermittent exterior shots, most of the narrative unfolds inside this confined space. Walsh magnifies this isolation by not showing any other humans; when a plow barrels past them, we don’t even glimpse the oblivious driver. There’s something almost prehistoric about their situation, and the film is most engaging as an allegory of sorts. I couldn’t help but think of cave drawings when Matt scribbles on a foggy window with his finger or carves into the dashboard the number of days they’ve been trapped. Later, he complains that they’ve woken up in an “ice age.” Because of this jarring timelessness, their eventual realization that they are mere feet from the plowed path (they can even hear the occasional passing vehicle) packs a visceral punch.

There’s something almost prehistoric about their situation, and the film is most engaging as an allegory of sorts.

Despite these strengths, Centigrade lacks the dynamism required for confinement narratives. Many similar films enliven their single setting through inventive visuals (Wes Craven’s fluid camerawork in the underrated Red Eye, 2005) or absorbing central performances (Mads Mikkelsen’s nearly wordless journey in Arctic, 2018). Besides some striking exterior footage, Centigrade’s cinematography is fairly plain; I’m all for minimalism, but Walsh’s formal constraint within the car (lots of medium shots) makes an inherently dull setting even less interesting. And while Rodriguez and Piazza do fine work, neither really commands our attention; it doesn’t help that their thin backstories (her recently published book isn’t selling; he just lost his job) feel conspicuously wedged into the dialogue, or that they plod through the requisite “Let’s fantasize about the food we miss” scene.

Part of survival movies’ cathartic thrill is in pondering what you would do under the same circumstances; we cheer characters on when they devise clever strategies for getting attention (and assure ourselves that we totally would have thought of that, too) and moan in despair when they make potentially fatal errors. Centigrade offers scant opportunity for such audience engagement; Naomi and Matt can either break through a window and attempt to dig their way out, or stay put and hope someone finds them. They (and we) don’t really have much else to do. The film’s richest opportunity for suspense is Naomi’s impending delivery, but when the time inevitably comes, the scene falls flat. In a baffling creative choice, Walsh reduces what could have been an excruciatingly suspenseful sequence to a nearly soundless montage. Some may argue he does so to avoid gratuity. Fair enough, but is glossing over a central conflict any less patronizing toward an audience?

Among the end-of-summer morass, Centigrade makes for a fairly enjoyable, if unremarkable, 90 minutes of at-home viewing. It’s an admirable effort, exhibiting workmanlike craftsmanship and respectable performances. But this type of story has been done so often before that we know exactly how it will end before it even begins. I’d wager most viewers can guess within seconds when the final cut to black occurs. Maybe not all true stories, however incredible, are well suited for cinematic adaptation; I would rather have seen a documentary about these events. There’s just not much to appreciate in a dark car surrounded by ice, especially when those trapped inside aren’t all that interesting in the first place. Even poor Mads Mikkelsen got to go outside and see the sky.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.

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