At times, Tom Gilroy’s The Cold Lands acts as if it’s trying to offer very dull versions of a number of American indie-film archetypes. There’s the story of the hardscrabble family making a living with whatever it can find. There’s the movie about the parent and child isolated from mainstream civilization in some out-of-the-way corner of the U.S. And there’s the stunningly shot film about a wanderer out in the wilderness, communing with nature and feeling more and more disconnected from his own species. The Cold Lands doesn’t offer a particularly interesting take on any of these forms, though its cinematography (by Wyatt Garfield) is so striking that it singlehandedly saves otherwise hollow stretches of the movie.
Then, around the one-hour mark, a lovable stoner hobo shows up, and the whole film abruptly shifts into a highly enjoyable short story about the ways society’s cast-offs find each other and form bonds, even as they’re well off the radar of the mainstream. The Cold Lands wants the audience to see meaning in the plight of its protagonist, newly orphaned boy Atticus Garfield (Silas Yelich). Instead, the hero’s new traveling companion, aforementioned stoner hobo Carter (Peter Scanavino), essentially steals scenes right out from under him. The film is all the better for it.
The Cold Lands is the first feature from writer-director Tom Gilroy since his 1999 debut, Spring Forward, a modest but effective drama anchored by some nicely drawn characters and strong performances. Gilroy aims more for a melancholy tone with The Cold Lands, which sends Atticus into the wilderness of the Catskills after the death of his mother (Lili Taylor). The filmmaker’s efforts are occasionally effective—especially in scenes of Atticus abruptly coming across vestiges of civilization and having to decide whether to flee deeper into the woods or finally abandon his sojourn—but he’s often held back by Yelich. The young actor is fine when sharing the screen with another performer, but he’s not up to carrying the film on his lonesome. A bit of a blank slate, Yelich struggles to convey much of anything without Gilroy’s words, and it leads to a lot of meandering.
Burdened with tangential musings, The Cold Lands is at its most effective when grappling with those who believe themselves so self-reliant that they refuse help from anyone—be it government, charity, or just a well-meaning friend. Atticus’ mother builds her life philosophy around that form of total independence, and when she drills it into her son’s mind, she inadvertently creates a situation in which he’ll bolt into the woods after her death, rather than fall into the hands of the government. Gilroy uses this scenario to establish a nicely creepy tone, but he also reaches to incorporate such bits of history as the anti-rent war of the 1840s, which is interesting and important to the story of the whole region but feels particularly pointless in the context of one boy’s struggle to survive in the wilderness.
A theater veteran, Gilroy’s greatest strengths come in scenes of two characters sharing the screen and shooting the shit, so The Cold Lands perks up as soon as Carter arrives. An effortlessly charismatic actor, Scanavino creates with his role a kind of future-tense version of Atticus, the logical endpoint of refusing to do anything for an ever-shifting understanding of The Man. Yet Carter is also a good-hearted person, with a conscience he slowly comes around to feeding and watering, and the film derives a surprising amount of tension from whether the right thing for him to do would be to turn Atticus over to the authorities and collect the reward money or simply usher the boy further into the vagabond’s life. There are the bones of the stereotypical “loser has his life turned around by a kid” story here, but Gilroy takes all of this to a more realistic, more interesting place, and he manages to find an ending for the story that offers a touch of optimism but doesn’t feel like a cheat. Self-reliance is all well and good in theory, but you’ll still have to deal with other people, even if they’re just fellow wanderers.