Film Review: ‘The Cold Lands’

After the sudden death of his mother, a taciturn boy heads for the hills in “The Cold Lands,” the sophomore feature of director Tom Gilroy (“Spring Forward”). The film is essentially composed of an extended prologue and two not entirely well-matched halves, the first (and weakest) of which sees the kid survive on his own in the woods of upstate New York before befriending a grungy drifter who happily scrapes by off the grid. Beautiful cinematography, and especially Peter Scanavino’s turn as the good-hearted hobo, should help land some international fest dates and at least a VOD release Stateside.

The early going sets out the anti-establishment ideas of neo-hippie mom Nicole (Lili Taylor), who instructs her son, Atticus (Silas Yelich), to toss out the cupcakes brought by a well-meaning church lady (Maggie Low) who’s clearly worried about Nicole’s health, but doesn’t know she has diabetes (and refuses outside help). Since mom always instructed him to avoid the authorities, 11-year-old Atticus leaves their idyllically located house — replete with bathing pond — as soon as the sheriff comes looking for the boy after Nicole’s unexpected death.

By this point, “Lands” has already signaled that Atticus occasionally slips into fantasy-dream mode a la “The Beasts of the Southern Wild,” perhaps not coincidentally also produced by Cinereach and Journeyman Pictures. But these sequences don’t offer a more complex look at the boy’s inner life, which is problematic, because there’s not a lot of dialogue for the long stretch he’s on his own in the Catskills, “Into the Wild”-style.

Popular on Variety

In this first-half action, there are a few psychology 101-style confrontations with his mom (read: conscience), such as when Atticus steals an iPod (“Do you really need that?” intones the cliched voiceover), as well as an enigmatic encounter with a possibly imagined deer. It doesn’t help that non-pro Yelich, who’s only earlier credit is an appearance in R.E.M.’s Gilroy-directed musicvid “It Happened Today,” is “Benetton”-ad photogenic but not expressive enough to suggest what he’s thinking without using words.

“Lands” finally roars back to life when Atticus runs into Carter (Scanavino), a charismatic, morally upright and resourceful wanderer who works the odd job until he gets fired and who moonlights as a necklace salesman. The duo stick together even after Carter’s figured out Atticus is the missing kid from the posters, and their relaxed banter and growing bond ring true.

It’s clear Gilroy is simpatico to his characters’ way of refusing to live within society’s predefined framework. But by choosing to make his case through the eyes of a traumatized 11-year-old, who can’t clearly reason for himself — and remains underdeveloped at the script level — the scribe-helmer muddies the pic’s p.o.v. An attempt to connect the protags’ struggles with the Anti-Rent War, which also took place in upstate New York, is handled in similarly awkward fashion, remaining narratively superfluous and thematically nebulous.

The supporting roles are mainly filled with actors who have worked with Gilroy in the theater over the years, including not only Taylor — whose just adequate here — but also Lowe, Nick Sandow, John Ventimiglia and Andrew van Dusen. Most are generally on the money.

The sharpest tech contribution comes from d.p. Wyatt Garfield, a gaffer on “Beasts,” who here delivers a bucolic version of the Catskills Mountains in which the leafy greens and shades of yellow of the omnipresent Canada goldenrods contrast with velvety blacks under a crown canopy that suggests danger and unexplored areas. Other below-the-line credits are equally pro.

The Cold Lands

Reviewed online, Paris, Feb. 26, 2013. (In Berlin Film Festival — Generation 14plus.) Running time: 100 MIN.

A Cinereach production, in association with Journeyman Pictures. Produced by Paul Mezey, Andrew Goldman. Executive producers: Philipp Engelhorn, Michael Raisler.

Directed, written by Tom Gilroy. Camera (color, HD), Wyatt Garfield; editor, Julia Bloch; music, Hahn Rowe; production designer, Sara K. White; art director, Erin Staub; costume designer, Rachel Diner-Best; sound, David Stevens; assistant director, Aaron Crozier; casting, Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee, Allison Estrin.

With: Lili Taylor, Silas Yelich, Maggie Low, Deb Monteith, Barry Kuhar, Tim Quinn, Liam Fitzgerald, Andrew van Dusen, Peter Scanavino, Peter Rufa, Nick Sandow, Jonathan Gatt, Trace Henderson, John Ventimiglia.

Film Review: 'The Cold Lands'

More Film

  • Hillary Clinton - Sundance

    Hillary Clinton Gets Candid About Feminism, Beyonce and 'Little Women' (EXCLUSIVE)

    One of the breakout projects at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is “Hillary,” a four-hour docu-series about Hillary Clinton. The former first lady, Secretary of State and first woman presidential nominee from a major political party sat down for 35 hours of interviews with director Nanette Burstein, who also poured through exclusive footage from the [...]

  • Steven Garza appears in Boys State

    Apple and A24 Partner to Buy Documentary 'Boys State' Out of Sundance

    Apple and A24 have partnered to buy the Sundance documentary “Boys State,” Variety has confirmed. The sale, for $10 million, represents one of the biggest pacts ever for a non-fiction film. “Boys State,” a political coming-of-age story, follows annual rite of passage in which a thousand teenage boys from across Texas come together to build [...]

  • Sandy Powell Costume Design The Irishman

    Mayes C. Rubeo, Sandy Powell Lead Below-the-Line Surge in Women Oscar Noms

    The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was quick to point out on Jan. 13 as the Oscar nominations were announced, that “A record 62 women were nominated, almost one-third of this year’s nominees.” Twenty of those below-the-line nominations were for women and minorities, including Sandy Powell, who secured her 15th nomination for “The [...]

  • Saoirse Ronan Awards Season Fashion

    Saoirse Ronan's Stylist Elizabeth Saltzman Creates 'Strong, Feminine Woman'

    Elizabeth Saltzman wanted Saoirse Ronan’s “Little Women” press tour looks to reflect her character: “A strong, feminine woman with a little masculinity mixed in.” In designing a Golden Globes dress, Saltzman spoke about Ronan with the Celine team. “We talked about Saoirse being effortless, sensual and cool — and not trying too hard,” she says. [...]

  • 1917 Movie

    George MacKay Talks '1917' and Filming in the Trenches

    George MacKay delivers a star-making performance in “1917.” After making his film debut at age 10 in the 2003 live-action “Peter Pan,” he played occasional film and TV roles and realized at age 19 “acting is what I wanted to do.” Since then, he’s appeared in an earlier WWI saga, “Private Peaceful,” and played Viggo [...]

  • Palm Springs Sundance

    Neon, Hulu Chasing Worldwide Rights Deal on Andy Samberg's 'Palm Springs'

    Tom Quinn’s Neon and streamer Hulu are looking to partner on a multi-million dollar, worldwide rights deal for Andy Samberg’s Sundance comedy “Palm Springs,” sources told Variety. Neon would take the film out theatrically while Hulu would retain rights for streaming customers around the world, said the insiders familiar with talks. One report valued the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content