Brendan Walsh’s cold survivalist thriller, Centigrade, is a creatively crafted claustrophobic study of a fractured marriage. Strongly acted, the drama wallows in melancholy while presenting peaks of hope amid its simple icy setting.
It’s also a rare two-person survivalist film. The lone-wolf format is popular, where one individual not only faces harsh environments — a deserted island, the expansive sea, the depth of a canyon, an alien planet — but the psychological travails of loneliness. A group survival movie often imagines the same environmental battles, but at the same time, couches the drama in a batch of people learning to work together. Both iterations can feature trapped individuals (Castaway, All is Lost, 127 Hours, and The Martian) or folks on the move (The Revenant, Vertical Limit, or The Perfect Storm). But Centigrade is a two-hander, and Walsh makes good use of the structure.
Set in 2002, and inspired by true events, the thriller finds an American novelist and her husband traveling through Norway on a modest book tour when a nighttime snowstorm persuades them to pull over on the side of the road for the night. When they awake, their SUV is buried in snow and ice, and their windows and doors are frozen shut.
As with movies like The Road and Adrift, the couple not only learn to live on the barest essentials, they also confront the truths and lies they’ve always avoided. Walsh takes the simple intimate setting of a husband and wife imprisoned in a fatally cold car, and enlivens the story with compelling shocks of despair and intrigue.
Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez, Big Hero 6) is the first to awake in the frozen vehicle. Upon realizing the inoperability of the windows and doors, the panic-stricken author shakes her husband Matt (Vincent Piazza, Boardwalk Empire) from his slumber. Their vehicle features three rows of seats, which allows Walsh plenty of depth and an array of low angles during the thriller’s early scenes. A literal plot hole opens up with the presence of a skylight.
Walsh also establishes the temperament of the couple through staging. The anxiety-riddled Naomi believes they should break a window open and immediately escape; whereas Matt cautions her against venturing out into the elements without any idea of the weather. Making matters more precarious, Naomi is pregnant and not far from her delivery date. Despite being based on a true story, Walsh misses the chance to interrogate the obvious gender stereotypes of Naomi playing the hysterical woman and Matt as the level headed man.
By their estimation, the pair have enough water, cookies, sandwiches, and chocolates to survive for 12 days. With the passing days, comes the rising of tensions, cinematographer Seamus Tierney’s once soft lighting, and the intricate angles which provided depth in the claustrophobic vehicle, morphs into tight close-ups and compact natural framing, which peers between the seats of the car to capture expressions of suspicion and fear on their faces.
The constricting space reveals the couple’s painful rift. For instance, they squabble over who deserves the most blame for their predicament, with Naomi believing the pair should’ve braved the storm and kept driving. Revelatory secrets involving pills and employment further wedges them apart.
Though Matt uses his swiss army knife to notch the dashboard, and Walsh provides time stamps, even the number of days runs away from the couple and the viewers. Soon, only deliberate pans across the suv’s dashboard and center console show the accumulation of ice and the passage of time. The makeup, when combined with the film’s later harsh lighting, displays their frostbite and weariness in stark relief. At first kinetic, to demonstrate the pair’s initial shock at their situation, Bradley J. Ross’ editing slows to a patiently paced crawl to exemplify the husband and wife’s dwindling endurance. In a film with a limited setting, storytelling through crafts rises to the occasion.
And while rays of hope do arrive, such as the passing of a snow plow or a car, or the specter of a barely charged phone, they pass like fatalistically cruel jokes. Rather than instilling daydreams of rescue, they reinforce nightmares of resignation. In its 95 minutes, with the emergence of life and the appearance of death, Centigrade takes both celebratory and mournful turns.
Rodriguez and Piazza add emotional complexity through the tiniest tics. It might be a faint smile — such as Matt telling Naomi he isn’t hungry in the hopes of her eating a larger portion — or a frustrated scowl. Their situation resolves in unforeseen and tragic ways that, while tough, feel rushed compared to the hard-fought gains in the majority of the drama. But as a feature debut, Walsh’s Centigrade is an immersive survivalist film that finds modest mileage by pitching together the dread of death with the crumbling of a marriage.