A large shard of the appeal of recent-year isolated arctic thrillers stems from seeing familiar faces scarred by physical and psychological abuse wrought by the wintry weather. Films like “The Grey” and last year’s “Arctic” are boosted by the presences of Liam Neeson and Mads Mikkelsen, respectively, while providing an avenue for both of those particular actors to achieve something dramatically elemental in their performances as their characters do battle against…well, the elements. At the same time, we take comfort in our warm movie-watching abodes while getting the suspicious itch that these roles cut much closer to showing the actors as their real-life selves than your average complex blockbuster. We all have a survivalist instinct in us to some extent, after all, despite whether or not we’re ever unlucky enough to find out what that limit is.
The unfortunate souls fighting for their survival in “Centigrade,” the newest trapped-in-wintry-hell drama from IFC – and a minimalist work in ways good and bad – aren’t the well-known faces of a Neeson or Mikkelsen type that most can immediately anchor their emotions in. While those who have seen “Boardwalk Empire” or “Jersey Boys” or “Tusk” may still recognize them, the intrigue of “Centigrade” lies not in chiseling to the icy core of an A-lister. It’s in the cruel irony of its real-life story (apparently stemming from a 2002 incident), here dramatized in a way that over-emphasizes inherent terror at the expense of character.
A woman and her partner wake up inside their car, which looks like it’s been entombed in a block of ice. The truth is less comforting, if only for how Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez) and Matt (Vincent Piazza) could have easily avoided their newfound catastrophe: They’ve been buried in a snowstorm after pulling off to the side of the road for the night rather than drive through a blizzard as they progress through a book tour (Naomi being the author). We can easily predict the initial domino effect, between the car not starting, the initial panic manifesting and the necessary taking-stock of resources unfolding.
If you predict all that, you can most likely predict how this dilemma will take shape over the course of the whole runtime. The most basic of human needs becomes a quandary (Where to go to the bathroom? How to best conserve that all-important bottle of water?) and the question of retaining body warmth steadily gives way to the question of retaining sanity as the snow-logged car becomes a stage for the airing-out of discontent between Matt and Naomi (who, by the way, is also fairly far along in a pregnancy). Those stuck in their homes during the pandemic with a significant other might get an uneasy tug of familiarity as the couple spar over the best course of action, their main choices being attempted escape (risking lethal exposure to the cold) or staying inside in the hopes that someone driving along the adjacent mountain highway notices the unusual mound of snow (risking lethal deprivation of water and food). The stakes are clear, even if Rodriguez and Piazza aren’t quite able to make their characters’ bickering the stuff of drama and not unfortunate silliness.
For a movie that opts for narrowing of scale – “Centigrade” mostly unfolds inside the cramped car, with the occasional outside shot grandly emphasizing how lost-in-the-middle-of-nowhere Naomi and Matt are – writer-director Brendan Walsh leaves key details to the audience to infer while he focuses on establishing a requisite claustrophobia in the caved-in darkness icing over his feature debut. The philosophy works in fits and starts, though it’s most effective when the camera (manned by Seamus Tierney) zeroes in on silent expressions of denial, dismay and cold surrender forming on our co-leads’ faces.
However, if it’s mentioned how many miles separate them from the nearest gas station or Holiday Inn, for example, it’s an understated remark that’s easy to miss. If we’re meant to get an idea of a relationship that’s been festering before the ill-fated trip, the suggestion is subdued. And if our pulse is meant to quicken as the days go on, the tension is too chillingly familiar to imagine any other way the movie could end than how it eventually does. “Centigrade” succeeds in making us feel as weary as its victims, but Walsh’s screenplay never establishes a sense of urgency, even when the ominously jagged score by Trey Toy and Matthew Wang is employed. That weariness we feel may just be boredom.
That’s because we don’t get a sense of who our characters are beyond their dilemma; their layers go only as deep as their frustrations evolve (and Walsh’s screenplay makes it easy to side with Naomi against Matt anyway). This may very well be by design; a reflection of the scant resources our characters have at their disposal. We make do with what we can. Or, rather, we’re meant to. It’s hard not to think Walsh is grasping at narrative straws when a supposed high point of the emotional plays out as Naomi decides on naming their child Olivia, or Liv, as in…you get it, don’t you?
What truly maintains the center of the suspense in “Centigrade” are repeated reminders of the mere inches of frozen snowpack that separate Naomi and Matt from the outside, but there’s only so far that suspense can get under our skin when there’s no engaging with the people at the center of the frame for nearly 100 minutes. The movie is ultimately more interested in the resiliency of its character than the characters themselves. But other filmmakers have depicted that resiliency before, and have done so more hauntingly, more resoundingly and more memorably.
"Centigrade" is not rated. It's available in some theaters and also for rent on digital viewing platforms.
Starring: Genesis Rodriguez, Vincent Piazza
Directed by Brendan Walsh