In The Cold Lands prepare for inspired photography by Wyatt Garfield within which images old-growth forests appear like cathedrals; fields of golden rod and sage seem timeless; the blue shadows of the deep woods, in shade or under the silver breath of the moon, transform memory; and clear ponds are scrying glasses that sadly cannot foretell the future because they lie with primal beauty. The Cold Lands portrays a mother and son living a simple, self-sustaining life in the idyllic Catskill Mountains of New York State. But regardless of Nicole’s (Lily Taylor) obvious commitment to a clean and healthful life filled with learning, invention, the wonders of the natural world, fresh food, and in general, staying off the grid and away from the distractions and poisons of modern life, she fails to regard her own health as being integral with the spiritual life and death of her son, Atticus (Silas Yelich). Intercut with scenes of Nicole irrationally refusing help from the county health officer, Maggie (Maggie Low) more in the form of a visiting nurse, are scenes of Atticus sequestering himself at the compost heap to snatch a cupcake mom sent to the dump; hiding candy; and in general, longing for a more mainstream involvement with other less constrained fourteen-year-old boys.
Atticus, despite motherly love and sylvan splendor – yes, there is even an obligatory encounter with a yearling white-tail – spends too much time alone living a largely cloistered life, but for school (one presumes this story is set during summer vacation) and the odd birthday party. Which is precisely where he is when his mother dies having ignored the onset of diabetes. We see Atticus arriving home in time to watch his mother’s shrouded body loaded into an ambulance, the nurse standing by, drying sympathetic tears. Naturally unwilling to be sent into the care of the state, our young desperado refuses to come in, wandering the mountains at will, “missing” despite heroic efforts on the part of police and the local community to find him. And this is when this glacially slow-moving film should take off, which it does, eventually: too little, too late.
The first hurdle in The Cold Lands is the pace; ludicrously slow from the first with a shuttling tempo that never varies. And while moving like a gentle breeze from one stunning shot to another lends the piece the occasional quality of true visual art, one constantly wonders where the story is heading: how much of this child alone in the wilderness can we bear before there is some kind of resolution beyond day-into-night-into-day…. And herein lies the second hurdle: internalization. Atticus is meant to be wandering “stunned,” but we see no evidence of this. Atticus’ expression never changes. In fact he presents a blank register without a hint of underlying strain: he shows nothing at the discovery of his mother’s death, nothing of the bewilderment and panic supposedly driving him (according to the synopsis), and no reaction to visions of his mother attending him. On no account due to subtlety, the portrayal reads rather like an emotional barrier to material beyond the depth of a young actor.
That withstanding, one endless night, Atticus stumbles upon a makeshift meth lab in the deep woods. The cooker, a Deliverance–styled redneck, paranoid and alarmed, begins firing blindly into the brush with a shotgun. Fearing for life and limb – one imagines – Atticus, rather than running like a hare from a gun, retreats somewhat blindly into the arms of rescuer, “Carter” (played wonderfully well by Peter Scanavino) there, as it happens, to tend his pot plants on reserve land. This fortunate collision with an improbably kind, fair-minded and caring stranger willing to adopt and protect a young boy and his personal freedom, lends a brief jolt to a film that, up to this point, cannot get out of its own way.
One is left wanting more of Carter, Atticus and the future because, unhappily, the past is as dull as ditch water: plodding, samey and uninspired. Perhaps that’s the point: one can be unhappy and bored, even in paradise. And yet there remains something lacking in the chemistry that leaves this film top-heavy and a trifle too demanding of projection to make it play for the empathy and viewer concern necessary for such a tale to hit as hard as it wants to.
Of note: an all too brief appearance by actor John Ventimiglia, best remembered by viewers for his compelling work as “Artie Bucco,” restaurateur, from the hit HBO series, The Sopranos, playing the role of, “Jackson.” Music is handled delicately, even deftly by Hahn Rowe; production design by Sara K. White; set decoration by art director, Erin Staub, and wardrobe by Rachel Dainer-Best, are world-class.
The Cold Lands will be available on Netflix, August 2nd, and will be coming soon to DVD.
Actor, writer and director, Robert Kenneth Dator worked in feature film and television in the United States and Australia before teaching and attending Graduate School. He lives with his family in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he is hard at work on several projects, including the academic film website Cinepsyche. Email him at email@example.com.
Read also Paul Risker’s interview with writer/director Tom Gilroy about the film.