Cold Creek Manor

"Bang with the hammer, bang with the hammer, until they were all dead. All of them."

Cold Creek Manor is the kind of movie that plays like it has a secret up its sleeve, and then we find out that it’s entirely straightforward. Such a film does not necessarily have to disappoint as long as the no-frills plot is tight, logical and elegant — see Breakdown. This one does disappoint (though not to the extent that it could have done) because virtually all of the key scenes are rendered laughable by the script, which does not concern itself with such minutia as what real people would do in these situations.

The trailer asks the not-so-ominous question: “have you ever wondered what happened in your house before you lived there?” Um, not really. Nonetheless, Cold Creek Manor is determined to explore the issue, telling the story of a family who naively buys a foreclosed house but have to contend with the previous owner who is pissed about the whole thing.

Cooper and Leah Tilson (Dennis Quaid and Sharon Stone) know they have to leave New York City when their young son Jesse is almost run over by a car on the same day that Leah is offered a promotion if she sleeps with her boss. They drive out to the countryside and find a beautiful but dilapidated home in a disturbingly unfriendly little town. They move in anyway, figuring that they’ll learn to get along with their new neighbors, but things only get shadier. Cooper, aspiring documentarian such as he is, has his interest piqued by the various files, pictures and mementos left by the previous owner. It’s not long before the owner himself (a surprisingly imposing Stephen Dorff) shows up, with a seemingly benign offer to help them fix up their pool. But then the house is invaded by snakes, Dorff’s father (Christopher Plummer) starts spouting something about “bang with the hammer until they’re all dead,” and, well, not good.

The Tilsons have an interesting strategy for dealing with an imminent threat within their home: they go as far upstairs as possible, in an apparent attempt to make it overwhelmingly difficult to escape. At least two times they do this; it is absolutely infuriating, and you have to understand that I am the least concerned with plausibility out of everyone I know, with the possible exception of my friend’s pet hermit crab. Worse, this repeated lapse is a symptom rather than the disease: each subsequent step in the plot raises further questions, not least among them being whether a certain someone really had to steal a certain someone else’s clothes after killing that someone.

The presumed rejoinder to this is that the script is meant to be taken on an allegorical level, the story serving as commentary on how the well-to-do thoughtlessly try to bully the less fortunate, and usually succeed. I actually quite like this interpretation, and think that the metaphor is apt, but that doesn’t give the movie free reign to screw around with our notions of logic and plausibility as they apply to specific situations. There is leeway with regard to the structure of the plot, but individual scenes still have to make sense. Sorry.

And now I will do a complete about-face and recommend the movie, on the basis of something I’ve thus far avoided discussing. The key to enjoying Cold Creek Manor is simple: just look at it. It is almost indescribably gorgeous. The director is Mike Figgis, who can do amazing things when he is not trying to split the screen into small sections. The cinematographer is Declan Quinn, whose filmography does not at a glance seem to contain any previous extraordinary achievements. Their combined work here is nothing short of stunning. The composition of certain shots nearly threw me back in my chair. Look at the way the light plays on Christopher Plummer’s face, or at the contrast between the twilight sky and a menacing truck lumbering toward the camera. There’s nothing remarkable about the scenery depicted here — it’s your average just-past-the-suburbs countryside. But consider how memorable it turns out to be, and then think about why.

You, dear reader, have an advantage over me: you know that Cold Creek Manor is going nowhere fast, and are free to sit back and marvel at what Figgis and Quinn do with celluloid. You don’t have to watch it, but you gotta see it.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

Snitch

Ric Roman Waugh, 2013

Score: C

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh, 2013

Score: C+

10 Years

Jamie Linden, 2012

Score: B-

The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance, 2013

Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

Score: C

Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

The Chase

Arthur Ripley, 1946

Score: B

Street of Chance

Jack Hively, 1942

Score: C

The Taste of Money

Im Sang-Soo, 2013

Score: C+

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