Portland, Oregon during the gray and rainy season is an ideal place to set a mystery story, adding a touch of monochromatic noir to the landscape. But the mystery in Cold Weather shares screen time with an exploration of different types of relationships, as writer/director Aaron Katz has done in his previous features, Quiet City and Dance Party USA. The combination results in a charming low-key film spiked with a touch of suspense.
Doug (Cris Lankenau) has just moved back to Portland after leaving college, where he had studied forensic science. He's not interested in a career at the moment, and ends up with a job at the local ice factory. In his spare time, he hangs out with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and reads old detective stories. His ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) shows up in town for a short trip, but doesn't show up for a date with Doug's coworker Carlos (Raul Castillo) and appears to have vanished. Doug and Gail team up, with help from Carlos to figure out where (and who) Rachel really is.
Doug may be fond of Sherlock Holmes and E.W. Hornung's Raffles stories, but he and his sister Gail are a sleuthing team in the same tradition as the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew -- young people using the library and other simple tools in the best way they know how. Despite Doug's forensic science classes, there's nothing CSI-ish here. The stakes here are a little higher than you find in teen-detective stories, however, and Nancy would never have ... well, you'll see.
It's the character interaction that carries the movie -- the way Doug and Gail get along, and the additions of their friends, potential dates and exes. Cold Weather takes its time to unspool both plot and character development -- don't expect a fast-paced thriller. I especially liked one scene in which Doug persuades his sister to play hookey from work to go whale-watching on a turbulent day. The movie has a quirky sense of humor, too, as in the scene where Doug decides he needs a Sherlock Holmesian pipe. The ending feels a bit sudden until you realize that it's given you everything you need.
To be honest, it took a few scenes for me to realize that Doug and Gail were brother and sister and not a couple, even though the first scene in the film is a dinner with their parents. Perhaps this is because they get along so well -- they may bicker occasionally but are generally very comfortable together. I'm not used to this type of sibling relationship in movies or in real life -- a movie about my sister and I solving a mystery wouldn't be nearly so laid-back, it would be a wacky Hollywood comedy starring Tina Fey and Sandra Bullock.
The plot of Cold Weather takes a little while to get going (I'll avoid the obvious "warm up" jokes here) but fortunately the characters are interesting enough to hold your attention while waiting for the mystery to unfold -- Doug's forensic science background and the shots of him reading Raffles provides clues a detective story will reveal itself eventually. Cold Weather isn't a big splashy thriller, it's a miniature in shades of gray, with some hidden surprises in the corners of the landscape that reward patient viewers.