In the world of unnecessary remakes, Hans Petter Moland’s Cold Pursuit probably sits up there with Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Matt Reeves’ Let Me In. But then we do live in a time when – despite the best efforts of Netflix – subtitles are still a straight-up nope for the majority of the movie-going public.
That’s how we arrive at this English language remake of Moland’s own In Order of Disappearance, with a plot that pretty much exactly follows the Norwegian movie from 2014. Stellan Skarsgård’s Nils Dickman is replaced by Liam Neeson as Nels Coxman, a humble snowplow driver in a small mountain town in Colorado. The simple life of this recent ‘Citizen of the Year’ is torn apart when his son is found dead of a heroin overdose. But unlike his wife (Laura Dern), Nels can’t accept the cause, and when a bloodied friend of his son shows up in his garage, he knows something’s up. On his quest for answers – and subsequently revenge – he’s soon drawn into a snow-swept world of drugs and gang warfare.
There’s always been something faintly ridiculous about Neeson as an action star, and Cold Pursuit’s self-awareness and frequent pitches into absurdity make it feel like the next logical step in the Liam-Neeson-killing-people evolutionary chain. Frank Baldwin’s script (from Kim Fupz Aakeson’s original) is sprinkled with darkly comic, frivolous, violent and melancholic moments, often within the same scene. It’s a strange tonal balance the film attempts – to meditate on the vicious cycles of violence that men perpetuate while making a joke out of strangling someone to death* – but it actually works, and might even remind audiences of masters like the Coen Brothers.
It’s not just the wintry setting and plot of a man getting caught up in something much larger than himself that’s Fargo– and Coen-esque, it’s also the attention paid to minor characters. While they don’t have the memorability of iconic Coen eccentrics, the supporting cast are given substance in Cold Pursuit. The two gangsters in a secret relationship; the scene of ruthless killers playing in the snow; the Native American drug dealer mourning the selling of culturally appropriated “Made in China” souvenirs; the new-on-the-beat cop taught small town policing by her grizzled partner; and, most notably, how every death is marked on screen with a title card of their name. All this serves to add weight to the violence that affects them all, and makes this more than just a standard dad-venge movie.
Moland adds a nice touch of his European cinema sensibilities to his direction early on in the film – from the abstract angles of the snowplow to surreal shots of Dern distraught in the snow – and shows deft shorthand in storytelling and a unHollywood-like restraint in his action scenes. Cinematographer Philip Øgaard and production designer Jørgen Stangebye Larsen make the most of the beautifully monolithic mountain setting and effectively use their set design to support character development, while a score by prolific composer George Fenton hints to this as a western, but also a cautionary folktale.
There are missteps – the incredible talents of Dern are criminally wasted, the attitudes taken to its black, Asian and female characters sometime border on the suspect, and the film is overlong. But with humour as dark as a Norwegian winter, knowing nods to its own absurdity, and an ability to both mock and indulge in its machismo, Cold Pursuit is more than just the standard revenge fantasy film.
*However, Neeson’s recent extremely disturbing admission that he once wanted to kill any random black man in retaliation for a friend’s rape casts his role in a very different light.
Director: Hans Petter Moland
Cast: Liam Neeson, Laura Dern
Rating: ★★★ ½
[This post first appeared on Filmblerg]