After scoring a modest sleeper success with the touristy romance “Cairo Time,” star Patricia Clarkson and writer-helmer Ruba Nadda reunite for the would-be suspenser “October Gale.” This underdeveloped tale set on an island in Northern Ontario’s Georgian Bay fails to build the intrigue or tension required for a thriller, and falls short as a character-driven drama as well. Polished but minor, the overly low-key results are unlikely to stir much theatrical excitement, though the pic should do OK in ancillary formats.
Toronto doctor Helen Matthews (Clarkson) is grieving the recent loss of the husband (Callum Keith Rennie, seen in wordless flashbacks) she was married to for 32 years. (The fatal accident that claimed his life is never specified.) As part of an effort to move on, she decides she’ll spend some time alone at her family’s isolated longtime vacation cottage; the power boat that gets her there conks out during a subsequent pleasure ride, requiring her rescue by the local harbor master. Upon being dropped off, she gets a big surprise, finding a stranger, Will (Scott Speedman), collapsed on the living-room floor, a gunshot wound in his shoulder. Will vaguely claims “some men attacked me” and that he borrowed the small motorboat he fled here with. (A brewing storm soon means that vessel will be too small for them to leave in.)
A bit later, after she’s patched him up, he reveals that he’s back from working odd jobs in Calgary, which in turn followed five years in prison for manslaughter after a bar fight got out of hand. But his resurfacing in the area he was raised in is dangerous, as “the guy’s father is not going to stop until he’s killed me.” When a local who stops by discovers his presence, Will tells her that soon both their lives will be in danger.
While it takes its leisurely time getting to the (rather paltry) action, Nadda’s script provides surprisingly little for a capable cast to chew on. The character writing is all too sketchy, with little explanation as to why Helen would automatically believe Will’s side of the story (as opposed to worrying this intruder might be dangerous himself), or just what happened between Will and the man he killed. When things finally do heat up, they resolve all too simply and abruptly, with little attempt to milk suspense. And the fadeout, suggesting a romantic future between the leads, seems silly — they’ve known each other for all of a few hours, and given that Helen is an apparently cool-headed medical professional (who’s also pretty handy with a shotgun), one wouldn’t think she’d fall for someone just because they’ve both survived a life-threatening emergency.
Clarkson, as usual, does her best to create a thoughtful, lived-in protagonist, but she and Speedman aren’t given the kind of material needed to fully dimensionalize their roles, let alone the bond that supposedly develops between them. Worse off is a late-appearing Tim Roth as the only other significant figure here; he doesn’t summon the menace needed, but then the screenplay gives him very little help in that department. (This is one of those occasions in which a lesser actor with a more conventionally villainous demeanor would have been better cast.) When he kills a minor character out of the blue, we don’t even know why, beyond guessing that Nadda couldn’t think of any subtler way to suggest, “This guy means business.”
Inconsequential and unscary as the sum effect is, “October Gale” is still gracefully crafted in design/tech departments. D.p. Jeremy Benning’s sweeping aerial shots of the Georgian Bay region (which encompasses some 30,000 islands over a roughly 6,000-square-mile area) under the closing credits are more exciting than anything in the preceding narrative, and make you wish the filmmakers had taken advantage of their setting by incorporating more outdoor action.