The Cold Lands

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<i>The Cold Lands</i>

Sensitive and made with care, The Cold Lands means so well that one wishes it contained more insights and better storytelling to go along with its plentiful amounts of compassion. The second feature from writer-director Tom Gilroy concerns the plight of those on the margins of society, but this drama struggles with its atmospheric, low-key approach, hoping for an introspective, unfussy tone that too often just comes across as undernourished. As a result, Gilroy has essayed a film about outsiders that never gets too deep inside its characters.

Set in upstate New York, The Cold Lands stars newcomer Silas Yelich, who appeared in the R.E.M. video for “It Happened Today,” which Gilroy also directed. Yelich plays Atticus, the only son of Nicole (Lili Taylor), a single mom who lives out in the woods in a rustic house and home-schools him, believing that she can teach him more than he can learn in a traditional classroom. Atticus is a bright kid who has friends and seems well-adjusted for an 11-year-old, but when his mother dies unexpectedly, he decides to bolt into the neighboring woods and fend for himself rather than ask for help from the authorities.

This development allows Gilroy, who’s also an actor and playwright, to segue from the understated scenes between Atticus and his mom to an almost wordless interlude in which Atticus communes with nature, eating berries and silently interacting with the wildlife. In both segments—Atticus with his mother and then without—The Cold Lands evokes the best qualities of Kelly Reichardt’s films with their emphasis on modest, barebones characters who live far away from major cities and follow their own particular rhythms. But in contrast to Reichardt, Gilroy doesn’t give his protagonists much of an inner life: Nicole’s outsider worldview isn’t explored, and Atticus seems so withdrawn that he doesn’t seem all that different after his mother dies.

While these are almost certainly conscious creative choices by Gilroy—the movie radiates an air of enigmatic reserve—they significantly temper our ability to be invested in Atticus’s plight, especially because his decision to live off the land never makes much sense. (Yes, his mother doesn’t believe in traditional schooling, but it’s not like they’re completely off the grid. She didn’t teach him to fear society, so why is he risking his life when he most certainly could get assistance from family friends?) Consequently, Atticus’s personal journey after her death doesn’t carry with it much resonance since it’s never quite clear why he’s set out on the journey in the first place.

Yelich has an open, soft countenance that works well to suggest his character’s sheltered existence. But that blankness stubbornly refuses to transform into something deeper: His stillness doesn’t read as any particular emotion, nor does it hint at buried feelings he’s trying to repress. Despite the affection The Cold Lands shows Atticus, the character is oddly uncompelling, a sweet-faced nonentity at the center of this minor drama.

Things pick up considerably when Atticus comes across Carter (Peter Scanavino), a 30-something pot-growing vagrant who makes money working odd jobs and selling handmade jewelry. Recognizing Atticus from the “missing child” flyers around town, Carter doesn’t ask the kid any questions, deciding instead to take him under his wing. And what’s interesting is how quickly the two become friends, both of them eschewing “normal” society to hang out off the beaten path. In Carter, Atticus sees a sort of father figure or older brother. In Atticus, Carter sees someone who will just let him be.

Scanavino brings charisma to a movie in desperate need of a spark. (Like the other characters, Carter isn’t particularly well-drawn, but Scanavino fills in the blanks, providing a skittish vulnerability that makes us wonder how Carter got to where he is now.) Carter’s life is portrayed as neither enviable nor awful, Gilroy simply presenting it as another way of existing in the world. It’s quite probable that Atticus considers Carter to be a preview of his future self, contemplating whether that’s what he wants for himself. The Cold Lands doesn’t judge these people, but its lack of perspective can sometimes trip into blandness. Gilroy wants us to think about people we don’t normally see in popular entertainment, but he doesn’t seem quite sure what (if anything) he wants us to think about them.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

Director: Tom Gilroy
Writer: Tom Gilroy
Starring: Silas Yelich, Peter Scanavino, Lili Taylor
Release Date: Mar. 14, 2014