Bring an extra-heavy overcoat and a healthy suspension of disbelief to “Wind Chill.” Not unlike the car that breaks down one frigid night and strands its passengers in the middle of nowhere, this intermittently effective thriller serves as a rickety vehicle for its two perfectly cast leads, working better as a slow-thawing two-hander than as a chilly ghost story. Lack of any kind of marketing push (or advance press screenings) should put the B.O. freeze on this pared-down genre exercise.
Fresh from her brilliantly acerbic turn in “The Devil Wears Prada,” British actress Emily Blunt dons a thick jacket and a spotless American accent to play a cranky college student trying to get home to Delaware for Christmas. She catches a ride with a random classmate (Ashton Holmes) who, it soon becomes clear, has been nursing a crush from afar on this sullen beauty.
After hours spent driving through a frozen, forebodingly beautiful stretch of wilderness, the young travelers take an ill-advised shortcut, only to get side-swiped by another car and end up stuck in a snow bank. With no food, no heat and no phone signal, they have a long, cold night ahead — one they will spend bickering, bonding and gradually coming to the realization (of course) that they’re not alone.
Script, penned by Joe Gangemi and Steve Katz, milks its scenario for both claustrophobic tension (the camera spends most of the time inside the car with the characters) and the broader unease of being lost in the middle of nowhere. Dan Laustsen’s icy-blue cinematography generates a palpable chill while extracting maximum anxiety from tight closeups, fogged-up windows and pitch-black shadows.
Early on, helmer Gregory Jacobs (whose first feature, the 2004 “Nine Queens” remake “Criminal,” was also produced by Section Eight) smartly hones in on the prickly rapport between his actors. Holmes once again embodies the awkward schoolboy innocence he displayed in David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” leavening it this time with just a hint of something edgier.Blunt broadens her register as yet another bitch you can’t help but love, no matter how spoiled, cranky, sarcastic and paranoid she gets. Beneath its superficial scares, this is a tale of two lonely souls connecting in an age of isolation, a suggestion beautifully borne out by the first and final shots.
After a taut, character-driven first half, however, “Wind Chill” blows into increasingly nightmarish and ludicrous territory, introducing frostbitten ghouls, priestly apparitions, a nasty cop (Martin Donovan), and a cycle of hallucinations that suggest the characters may be dreaming as they freeze to death; pay close attention to their early dialogue about Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. On second thought, don’t.