Tom Gilroy’s second feature, The Cold Lands, qualifies as long-awaited for the happy few who remember his 2000 debut, Spring Forward. That film traced the course of a three-way relationship between two men and the passage of time, given that it was shot in week-long increments over the course of a year. (Take that, Boyhood.) The Cold Lands, shot in and around the small Catskills town where Gilroy lives, literally and figuratively covers some of the same territory, although instead of grown social outcasts, it focuses on a teenage boy (Silas Yelich) who strikes out on his own after his mother (Lili Taylor) suddenly dies.
Atticus (Yelich) is already isolated by the way he’s been raised, homeschooled by his mom, who takes him on a field trip—to an actual field!—to teach him about the Anti-Rent Wars of the mid-1800s. Though she’s more a dropout than a revolutionary—she sighs at the ingredients list on a bag of gas-station nuts, and won’t let Atticus pick up a free TV from the roadside—it’s clear Nicole (Taylor) values her independence above all else, up to and including all but the most necessary human contact. A county health worker concerned about what seems to be Nicole’s worsening diabetes keeps trying to look in on mother and son—Atticus’ father, whoever he was, is no longer in the picture—but Nicole turns her away, and cautions her son to do the same: “If they think you need them, then they think they can tell you what to do,” she warns. “So the best thing is not to need them.”
When Nicole abruptly dies (which Gilroy clearly doesn’t intend as a surprise to the audience), Silas pushes her philosophy to its logical, frightening extreme, disappearing into the woods and dodging not only the social workers and police officers who are out looking for him, but the grown men who’ve apparently made a similar choice, albeit for less sympathetic, more criminal reasons. Unfortunately, The Cold Lands goes flat in this middle section. Gilroy’s visual style is strong, but he doesn’t frame the images to chart Atticus’ development, and Yelich, whose only previous screen experience is starring in the video Gilroy directed for R.E.M.’s “It Happened Today,” doesn’t suggest what’s going on beneath the layers of trauma and withdrawal. Gilroy fills in some of the gaps by having Atticus’ mom reappear as a subjective shade, scolding him for pilfering from strangers’ houses and reminding him, as she failed to in life, “There are so many ways to be happy.” But what could be a heartbreaking device feels instead like a fail-safe, subtitling emotions that ought to already be clear.
The movie picks up again in its final third, when Atticus crosses paths with Carter (Peter Scanavino), a fitfully employed landscaper and amateur pot grower who also sells handmade jewelry at swap meets. It’s characteristic of Gilroy’s minimalist style that Carter offhandedly refers to having learned the technique for the latter from “some Native American guy,” a fleeting reference that echoes throughout The Cold Lands’ suggestive emptiness. American history suggests there’s ample reason to mistrust those who claim to offer help, but the consequences of living by that code can be devastating, even deadly. Perhaps that’s true for The Cold Lands, which sustains a lovely mood, but keeps the audience at a perpetual distance. It keeps threatening to turn into a movie, but never entirely does.