Aaron Katz’s low-key mystery-comedy Cold Weather opens with hero Cris Lankenau returning home to Portland after washing out at college, where he was studying to be a forensic scientist. Lankenau quit because he has no interest in the academic approach to criminal investigation; he just wants to be Sherlock Holmes. He moves in with his unmarried older sister, Trieste Kelly Dunn, and works the overnight shift at an ice factory, where he makes friends with geeky co-worker Raúl Castillo, who moonlights as a DJ. When Castillo asks Lankenau’s ex-girlfriend Robyn Rikoon out on a date and she fails to show, he suspects foul play, and asks Lankenau to do a little gumshoe-ing. Lankenau proves surprisingly adept, but as he leans more and more on Dunn for help on the case, he begins to suspect that his sister may need his help even more than Castillo and Rikoon do.
Cold Weather aims to blend classic genre tropes—like sneaking around a motel, or swiping a briefcase—with the kind of true-to-life naturalism that Katz brought to his previous features Quiet City and Dance Party, USA. Except that Katz’s kind of naturalism never feels all that natural—it feels like a handful of scriptless actors trying to be natural. Katz gooses his movie with moments of hackneyed comedy (as when Lankenau insists “We’re not calling my sister!” just before a smash-cut to him sitting with her in a diner) and forced quirkiness (as when Lankenau interrupts his investigation so he can go buy a pipe, to be more like Sherlock). Compared to the disciplined minimalism of Jim Jarmusch, or the deadpan detective hijinks of the HBO series Bored To Death, Cold Weather comes off as sloppy.
Still, the movie does have a charm that develops gradually. Lankenau is funny as he tries to investigate Rikoon’s disappearance without making it look like he’s investigating. And the movie’s big climactic action sequence achieves the effect Katz is going for, building tension from the notion of real people trying to accomplish something dangerous. Is the sequence more effective because of all the fumbling that comes before? Not especially. If anything, it works the other way around. Because of the few bursts of suspense, Katz is able to make a nothing scene where Lankenau and Dunn wait for a mix-tape to rewind unusually poignant.