Writers' Note: Cold as Ice
Updated: Feb 2, 2022
For this edition of Writers’ Note, we’ve asked our writers to select movies that leave them feeling chilly. That chilly feeling could be due to the actual climate of a film’s setting, or, in the other sense, a particularly evil character that gives them goosebumps. They asked themselves: why does this movie feed into my fears? Why do I enjoy the movie nonetheless?
When I think of films that are "cold as ice," the first one to pop into my head is none other than Fargo (1996). It's set in desolate, remote Minnesota and North Dakota in the dead of winter. The sky is chronically gray and bleak. In contrast, the characters are surprisingly upbeat; everyone is smiling and polite to each other. It must be that midwestern charm, yah?
Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is an incompetent manager of a Minneapolis Oldsmobile dealership, desperate for money. He hires two men, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare), to kidnap his wife and demand a costly ransom from Jerry's father-in-law (Harve Presnell). Things go more awry when they get tangled in a series of murders on their way to North Dakota, forcing local officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) to investigate.
I exalt the Coen brothers, and believe they do a fabulous job creating strong characters in their films; this is particularly evident with the character of Marge Gunderson. Perhaps I am biased because I adore Frances McDormand, but Marge may be one of my favorite characters of all time. Although the plot is quite literally about kidnapping, bribery, and murder, I am rendered blind to the chaos by everyone's unfailing politeness. The film's portrayal of stereotypical midwestern charm masks the enormity of the crimes committed. You betcha I can't stop using Minnesotan slang after watching Fargo, don’t cha’ know.
Cliche? Maybe! Regardless, if The Thing doesn’t leave you feeling chilled to the bone then sorry to say but you are the titular thing!
John Carpenter’s bottle thriller isn’t particularly complex: a research team in the middle of Antarctica is plagued by an unknown murderous force that turns everyone against each other. Soon enough, nobody can trust each other as they are picked off one by one in the dead of night with the wind whistling behind them. Elsewhere, this plot may be boring, but The Thing’s simplicity is its greatest weapon as Carpenter slowly encases the viewer in a claustrophobic nightmare.
As for the frigid feeling I get whenever I watch it, sure, one can easily attribute it to the icy climate that the crew is surrounded by, captured in all of its terror and beauty by Dean Cundey. But it’s much more than that. Even in the station halls, there’s a growing alienation to the film that is one of if not the main reason the crew turns around each other, going so far as to sew the same doubts in the audience. But, maybe that’s just me, because each watch, I can’t stop looking at everybody and everything with fear.
In a genre that can run stale fast, Carpenter never lets a moment become dry. He instills the fear of the unknown in every frame. Empty corners bear secrets that we may never discover, and the morning may never come.
I watched Let the Right One In (2008) as part of one of my 10 Films, 10 Countries, 10 Days series. I didn’t know much about the film other than that it had to do with vampires, and that its iconic child-behind-a-frosty-glass-window poster was one of the most unsettling I’ve ever seen.
Let the Right One In follows an intellectual but morose little boy named Oskar who lives in a bitter cold town in Sweden. He is socially isolated at school and left up to his own devices by his mother. While hanging around outside one night, he meets another child, Eli, who appears to be his age. They become companions in secret, as Eli is, most peculiarly, only around at night. Slowly, as Oskar becomes more implicated in Eli’s life, Eli reveals their true identity to him.
The original book is apparently even more disturbing than the film, which finds an unusual mix of sweetness and gore. The perpetually dark Swedish town is offset by its snowy exterior, providing an eerie landscape for Eli’s bloodlust. It’s also rather melancholy, in seeing that Oskar is so isolated and neglected that he is willing to give everything up for the first person who treats him kindly. The film pairs Oskar’s naive disposition with a sense of imminent danger, as thoroughly unsettling as it is pitiable. Its ending leaves behind a feeling of amused disbelief followed by deep discomfort.
Even without its frigid setting, Let the Right One In inspires fear for its poor, disturbed protagonists who cannot fit into society. It left me dangerously distrusting of adults who were unable to care for Oskar and Eli. It’s an invasive film that lingers in your thoughts long after the runtime. It just makes me shiver.
No villain has given me the chills quite as much as Terence Fletcher. He’s a man that pushes people to the breaking point without hesitation. When we first meet him in Whiplash (2014), it’s made clear that his idea of instruction involves treating whoever he’s working with as lesser than him. We warm up to him at the start, until Andrew’s first rehearsal in Shaffer’s studio jazz band when we see Fletcher as a ruthless, menacing teacher. From yelling at a shy student for being out of tune to nearly decapitating Andrew with a chair, Fletcher gets under everyone’s skin.
What makes this character work so well is J.K. Simmons’ performance in the role, which earned him a very deserving Oscar win. Simmons perfectly portrays the psychoticism of the character, leaving the audience guessing whether he’ll straight up kill someone or just drive them to go off the deep end. However, the most unique thing about Fletcher is his coldness. Some viewers may argue that his methods are beyond extreme and that he’s truly a mad man. On the contrary, some can say that he’s doing nothing wrong and only trying whatever it takes to make the next great jazz musician.
Director Damien Chazelle penned the script and forces audiences to ask themselves if Fletcher was right or wrong. Chazelle’s also given more wiggle room with the character here as Whiplash was originally a 15-minute short film (with Simmons in the role of Fletcher). Regardless of what you think of Terence Fletcher and his methods, there is no doubt that he is one of the most brutally cold characters ever put to screen.
Perhaps, in Tokyo Twilight (1957), the effects of the winter season are portrayed quite simply: the characters wear masks, sit close to the fire, and bundle themselves up before going outdoors. Still, there is this palpable chill in the air, a feeling so cold that it might as well be seeping through the screen. For a director whose works so often utilize the changing seasons as a way to observe the passage of time, the wintery setting of his last black-and-white film remains a true anomaly in Yasujiro Ozu’s catalog. For all his dramas in-miniature, however, Tokyo Twilight might be Ozu’s one true tragedy, as perhaps the darkest, most deeply sad film the man ever made.
Like most of his other films, Tokyo Twilight is a study of families; more abstractly, it’s a tale of mothers and daughters, of secrets and lies, and of loneliness in modernity, documenting the hardships of a family amidst the generational shifting of post-war Japan. None of this is new territory for Ozu, but Tokyo Twilight is far grimmer in its outlook. It is a deeply somber moral tale about abandonment, carrying itself with the poetic weight of a gaping hole in the heart.
Still, because this is an Ozu movie, all of this is conveyed with a featherlight touch. It’d be so easy for a film like Tokyo Twilight to swerve into the melodrama; instead, the jolt of tragedy is delivered in ellipsis and unraveled through subsequent conversations, the sort of thing that suggests more of an interest in the aftermath than the actual event. Visually, the touch remains, even if the immaculately constructed pillow shots and cozy low-to-the-floor angles are turned onto the outer margins of post-war Tokyo, rendering the city similarly to how his contemporary, Akira Kurosawa, would in films like Stray Dog or Drunken Angel. It’s a film where smoke fills the mahjong parlors, where empty bottles and vessels adorn the foregrounds and backgrounds of several shots, where even the light of the lanterns can’t bring warmth to the freezing cold.
-Sophie, August, Lydia, Tyler & Raghav