William Fichtner’s been working in television and film since 1989. He’s played a variety of characters in myriad of genres, but rarely does he get the kind of recognition that other actors working as hard as he and as talented as he are given. Perhaps this will change with his directorial debut, Cold Brook, a small drama whose supernatural elements do nothing more than serve as the catalyst for character development. Co-written by actor/director Cain DeVore (Spider-Man: The Animated Series), Cold Brook succeeds in part by its fantastic cast, but mostly by its focus on simplicity. There’re no grand fights or superfluous moments, just a tale of love that transcends time and mortal existence.
Neighbors Ted and Hilde (Fichtner and Kim Coates) are best friends who work together on the maintenance staff at Woodbury College. One evening after the Museum of Art closed down for the night, the duo notice a man (Harold Perrineau) standing in the exhibit for The Bernadine, a ship lost at sea in 1857. Ted and Hilde are at first perplexed to find him inside the locked building and are absolutely flummoxed when he disappears after turning a corner to a dead end. As the man appears in other places around town, the two men begin to realize the connection the man has to the exhibit. What they can’t figure out is how only they two can see him and why that matters.
Speaking plainly, Cold Brook is not a film that seeks to repaint history or position either Ted or Hilde as white saviors. Gratefully, the use of a pre-Civil War character isn’t there to be saved and the reconciliation he requires doesn’t fall into any kind of tokenism. Within the context of Cold Brook, Gil is merely a husband trying to get home to the wife he loves and from whom he was separated when Bernadine went down. This pull to reconnect serves as the narrative tether as the audience not only observes the familial closeness between Ted and Hilde, but the relationships of the respective men with their wives. It’s this humanism which propels the story and makes it a richer experience.
Intentional or not, there’s a very The Dukes of Hazzard feel pervasive throughout the film due to the fact that Ted and Hilde get up to some antics, with blue grass music playing in the background. These two are not good ‘ole boys, but they do revel in simple things: companionship with each other and the love of their families. Underscoring this, Cold Brook utilizes songs and a composition dripping with Appalachia, imbuing the New York state-based film with a persistent small-town, rural feel. It certainly helps that everyone in the town of Cortland seems to know one another, ribbing each other playfully and engaging personally. By maintaining that small-town feel throughout the film, Cold Brook never seems to possess elevated stakes, yet it’s never without drama. As mentioned, the audience learns of a disparity in the Ted household through the narrative, whereas Hilde seems to have it all figured out. Through the interpersonal conflict at home and, later, at work as the duo try to help Gil, the intrigue grows without ever seeming overblown or overdrawn. Much of this is due to the combination of an airy script and solid casting, making Cold Brook a bit of breezy fun that will manage to pull out some tears, should full investment occur.
Cold Brook is the kind of indie production where you can tell how much heart went into the production by the fact that nothing seems unnecessary and the performances come from an incredible pool of talent. Fichtner, himself, is a prominent character actor, able to disappear into virtually any performance. Here, as Ted, he’s charming, brooding, good-humored, and full of awe, without ever once seeming disingenuous. Coates, as Hilde, is the perfect partner and frequent foil for Ted. An actor who’s more well-known for playing villains or characters capable of great harm, is not just a softy here, but an endearing one at that. Thereres a few scenes that seek to belittle the character through friendly jest and Coates reacts with the right amount of concern and bemusement. Though the best scenes feature Fichtner and Coates, the scenes with Coates and Mary Lynn Rajskub (24), who plays his wife Rachel, come in second. Similarly capable in any genre, Rajskub and Coates are a fantastic match whose apparent chemistry makes their hinted at backstory incredibly believable. Rounding out the foursome is Robin Weigert (Deadwood) as Ted’s wife, Mary Anne. As an actor, she’s no stranger to playing tough or resilient characters, but what’s nice here is how the script shifts its perspective of the character slowly throughout the film. Initially, the script wants us to root for Ted, yet, as it progresses, through small bits here and there, mostly from Weigert’s delivery, the audience gets to the crux of things: Ted’s as lost as Gil. The difference is, Gil has a heading and a purpose. Unlike the other characters, though, Gil is incredibly singular and lacking variation. With a different actor, the role would be incredibly one-note, whereas Perrineau manages to create depths. This is necessary as any appearance of Gil tends to sap the general levity right out of the proceedings.
All in all, Cold Brook is a fine piece of cinema and a strong first-time at bat for Fichtner. The narrative’s hopeful without devolving into schmaltz and sweet without being oversentimental. The direction is confident and communicates the awareness of someone who’s been in entertainment for years. His first outing doesn’t display a specific view or style, but it radiates comfort. Where the performances will certainly endear the characters, what holds an audience is the simple nature of the film. For those who find themselves charmed by Cold Brook, even it’s sometimes over willingness to explain that which doesn’t absolutely require explanation, it’ll hit right in the soft spots. Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital November 8th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.