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Busan Film Review: ‘Numb’

Jason R. Goode's mixed-bag survival thriller strands four treasure seekers in an icy Canadian wilderness.

With:
Jamie Bamber, Marie Avgeropoulos, Aleks Paunovic, Stefanie von Pfetten, Colin Cunningham.

An ill-fated treasure hunt in subzero temperatures sends only intermittent chills through the audience in “Numb.” Charting the predictably grim fallout when four unlikely gold seekers venture into the frigid wilderness of northern British Columbia, director Jason R. Goode’s low-budget survival thriller shows a plucky resourcefulness in some respects, but also a tendency toward contrivance and overstatement in others; there are precious few mysteries left to divine about these thinly drawn characters and their desperate motives by the time they’ve reached their destination. A starring role for Jamie Bamber reps the pic’s best shot at locating an indie theatrical/VOD niche; until then, further midnight and genre festival bookings await.

Unemployed for months and about to lose his home in Vancouver, Will (Bamber) heads to some far-flung northern town with his wife, Dawn (Stefanie von Pfetten), to accept the job that they hope will ensure their survival. But times are hard all around, and when he learns the company has instead reneged on its agreement, Will is too devastated to break the news to his wife. During their long, snowy drive back to Vancouver, Will impulsively picks up two hitchhiking siblings, to Dawn’s near-immediate regret: Cheryl (Marie Avgeropoulos) proves sharp-tongued and abrasive, and her brother, Lee (Aleks Paunovic), turns out to be a recently released ex-con.

Lee is also something of a backseat philosopher, the type of person who doesn’t believe in coincidences and thinks that fortune favors the bold. And so when Will makes yet another ill-advised altruistic pickup — this time, a barely conscious elderly man who promptly succumbs to hypothermia — Lee believes they’ve had a stroke of luck. Not only does the dead man have a few grand in his wallet, but he also has a slip of paper containing what appear to be GPS coordinates. And when some quick Googling confirms his identity as a bank robber, Lee and Cheryl are certain that the coordinates (which point ot a location just 30 miles or so away) will lead them straight to a stash of $4 million in gold that was never recovered by police. Will balks at first, but Dawn, seeing a permanent way out of financial ruin, insists they go along.

It’s an improbably convenient setup whose details are dispensed rather too hastily in Andre Harden’s script, perhaps on the assumption that the quicker the delivery, the less inclined we’ll be to question plausibility. “Numb” is eager to get its characters on the miles-long trek into the freezing-cold middle of nowhere, a journey that looks increasingly foolhardy with every step: While they do have some handy tools and weapons on hand (keep an eye out for Chekhov’s flare gun), their coats won’t shield them forever as they retreat further and further into the woods. And naturally, there are any number of obstacles along the way, including a sheer cliff that comes out of nowhere, plus a creepy local trapper (Colin Cunningham) whose remote cabin they have the misfortune to stumble upon.

In the end, though, a thriller of this nature depends on character-driven tension and strong group interplay, and on that level Goode’s movie offers a collection of recognizable types with a tendency to spell out the more obvious aspects of their predicament in dialogue. (“It’ll be like the last year and a half never happened,” “We should’ve gotten rid of ‘em when we had the chance,” etc.) For all that, Goode elicits solid performances all around: Bamber is credible enough as a weak-willed, reasonable-sounding guy whose inability to provide for his wife is made even clearer under these extreme circumstances, and von Pfetten movingly inhabits the role of a woman willing to cast conscience aside, spurred by despair into uncharacteristically reckless action. Avgeropoulos suggests depths well beyond the one-dimensional snark her character is frequently saddled with, while the physically imposing Paunovic cuts a more intriguingly ambiguous figure — the sort of guy who’d enjoy a beer with you one minute and bash your head in the next.

Admirably avoiding cheap “gotcha” scares, “Numb” isn’t especially effective at mounting suspense and tension over the long haul, and moments that should pack a bigger punch — the slip of a foot, the slip of a knife — seem to fizzle on impact. The construction, editing and pacing of scenes here suggest a director and crew that haven’t entirely mastered their terrain, despite the fine location work showcased in d.p. Jan Kiesser’s artful landscape shots. Where the picture proves effective, and highly restrained, is in its evocation of the long, crippling, agonizing fate that awaits (some of) its lead players. As even the recent “Everest” demonstrated, freezing to death isn’t exactly the most cinematic way to go. Ironically, though, it’s when the characters slow to a crawl, visibly weakened by the icy, indifferent onslaught of the elements (captured by Darci Jackson’s excellent makeup effects), that “Numb” at last summons an unmistakable flicker of feeling.

Busan Film Review: ‘Numb’

Reviewed at Busan Film Festival (Midnight Passion), Oct. 4, 2015. Running time: 88 MIN.

Production: (Canada) A Jenkinson/Goode Prods. production, with the participation of Telefilm Canada, Rogers Telefund, in association with Super Channel, Cinema Management Group. Produced by Dylan Jenkinson, Robyn Wiener. Executive producers, Nicholas Tabarrok, Rosie Perera, Jason R. Goode.

Crew: Directed by Jason R. Goode. Screenplay, Andre Harden. Camera (color, widescreen), Jan Kiesser; editor, Kye Meechan; music, Alain Mayrand; music supervisor, David Hayman; production designer, Paul McCulloch; set decorator, Sal Awad; costume designer, Vicky Mulholland; sound, Robert McDonagh; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Miguel Nunes; special effects coordinator, Brant McIlroy; visual effects supervisor, Chris Van Dyck; visual effects, CVD VFX; makeup effects designer, Darci Jackson; stunt coordinator, Dan Redford; line producer, Robyn Wiener; associate producers, Jamie Bamber, Andre Harden, Aleks Paunovic, Richard Perera, Rick Perera, Jeff Benna; assistant director, Julia Bettencourt; casting, Nancy Nayor, Andy Henry (U.S.), Judy “J.K.” Lee (Canada).

With: Jamie Bamber, Marie Avgeropoulos, Aleks Paunovic, Stefanie von Pfetten, Colin Cunningham.

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