Two determined and desperate souls collide in unlikely fashion in “Cold Comes the Night,” a capably assembled if ultimately unremarkable thriller outing for writer-director Tze Chun. As in his memorable 2009 immigrant drama “Children of Invention,” Chun follows a single mother forced to take extreme measures in the wake of dire economic circumstances; the result evinces a decent sense of atmosphere and a deep-rooted sympathy with hardscrabble lives, but trades in genre conventions too hackneyed and familiar to register with much impact. The presence of a post-“Breaking Bad” Bryan Cranston, slumming as a Russian-accented mafioso, might draw a few eyes to this simultaneous VOD/theatrical release (available Jan. 10).
Chun’s script (co-written with Osgood Perkins and Nick Simon) strikes an overly familiar note at the outset, ominously surveying a bloody crime scene before flashing back to recount the events leading up to it. Resilient, hard-working widow Chloe (Alice Eve) runs a derelict motel in upstate New York — a hotbed of prostitution and drug use that, as social services makes threateningly clear, represents a poor home environment for Chloe’s sweet young daughter, Sophia (Ursula Parker).
As if to prove the point, a hooker (Sarah Sokolovic) and her john (Robin Lord Taylor) are found dead in one of the motel rooms after a night of passion gone horribly wrong. And Chloe’s troubles are just beginning: Soon she finds herself held at gunpoint by the dead man’s partner in crime, Topo (Cranston), who forces her to help him recover several hundred thousand dollars in cash that the two were transporting across state lines. Another wrinkle: Topo, who wears dark shades at all times, is effectively blind, not that it makes him any less dangerous.
In tracing the fallout from a series of bad decisions involving a bag of cash, a bleak rural setting and several crooks of variable experience and intelligence, “Cold Comes the Night” mines the sort of B-movie territory elevated by the likes of “Fargo” and “A Simple Plan,” but minus the dark humor and the inexorable sense of dread. Chun choreographs violence capably enough, even when he doesn’t fully earn it; one of the more questionable plot turns concerns Chloe’s affair with a crooked cop (Logan Marshall-Green) who has his own designs on the dirty dough, initiating a series of misunderstandings and tense confrontations that up the story’s body count at the expense of clarity and credibility.
Fortunately, the film maintains a strong central focus on the gradually evolving relationship between Topo and Chloe, who more than holds her own as she attempts to cajole and ultimately outwit the cold-blooded stranger who has inexplicably decided to make her his accomplice. It’s a role Chloe lives up to better than she would perhaps like, as she finds herself mildly warming to her captor (though their bond stops far short of Stockholm syndrome) and, more crucially, realizes what she and her daughter could do with a little of that money. A key plot element concerns the tightly rolled-up wad of cash Chloe has been saving up for years, the dirty bills pointedly contrasting with Topo’s neatly sealed bags of dough.
Eve (“Star Trek Into Darkness”) succeeds in establishing a rooting interest in Chloe while also making her a tougher, thornier and more complicated protagonist than one might expect. At once wily and vulnerable, she makes a fine match for Cranston, who, for all his menace, manages to generates his own moments of sympathy for this Slavic-accented devil. If the narrative elements feel at times risibly cliched, Chun comes close to redeeming them with his depiction of a world where uncertain times and limited opportunities force individuals of every stripe — from lower-middle-class types like Chloe to mob middlemen like Topo — to put their lives and what scruples they possess on the line.
Laurie Hicks’ spare production design and the underpopulated New York locations beautifully capture a sense of desolation, while Noah Rosenthal’s HD lensing and Pau Frank’s editing further distinguish the proficient technical package.