Cold November (2017)
So…guns, huh? I came to review Karl Jacob’s Cold November a few days after the mass shooting in Santa Fe, and viewing the trailer my kneejerk reaction was: “Oh great. A movie about gun nuts.” With the epidemic of school shootings ongoing in America, the prospect of a film about a young girl given a rifle for her twelfth birthday then taken out into the woods to kill a deer wasn’t terribly appealing. I guess that’s the problem with the climate these days – the dialogue between left and right has become so fraught that as soon as anything prickles against one’s political leanings even a little, there’s a tendency to reject it out of hand as belonging to the other side of the aisle.
Even without the current climate, I would’ve expected to find the film quite alienating anyway. I’ve never even held a gun, let alone fired one, so the idea of deliberately giving a rifle to a kid and showing them how to use it is totally nuts to me. Then there’s the whole wilderness thing they’ve got going on over there in the States – that’s completely incomprehensible to someone from England like me. It’s impossible to get lost in England. If you lose your bearings all you have to do is walk in any direction for about half an hour and you’ll come across a roundabout with a Burger King, Tesco and Currys superstore in the middle of it. Or if you don’t fancy walking, just stay still for long enough and you’ll get stumbled upon by walkers, doggers, or someone looking for a good spot to dump a stolen moped.
Anyway, I digress. Cold November introduces us to Florence (Bijou Abas) on her 12th birthday. When we first meet her, she’s playing with toy cars in the garage. A little while later at her birthday meal, her family will give her a gun as a present. The weapon is a cherished heirloom, having been passed down generation to generation. With it her matriarchal family will gently guide her through a rite of passage, taking her out into the woods to shoot her first deer.
They’re a loving family, and it’s clear that hunting has been an important part of their life for many generations. Grandma Georgia (Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding) spins a yarn about how hunting deer in off-season kept food on the table during hard times. Florence’s mum Amanda (Anna Klemp) and auntie Mia (Heidi Fellner) are obviously very experienced hunters. There’s some mystery surrounding the death of Florence’s cousin Sweeney (Alaina Lucy Riviera) – it’s never made clear how exactly she died, but given the context it’s implied that firearms were involved.
The central tension of the film is how Florence will handle her first hunt and Abas, in her film debut, conveys that apprehension beautifully. She holds the screen so well, especially since we spend a lot of time just watching her sitting around quietly waiting for a deer to show up.
The rite of passage also symbolically coincides with Florence’s first period, which is dealt with frankly and at quite some length. Coincidentally I ended up seeing Cold November almost back-to-back with Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, another film about a young woman experiencing her first period and facing subsequent tribulations, and the different approaches taken by the male writer-directors to the subject are interesting. Jaromil Jireš just showed a droplet of blood falling on a daisy, and that was all I needed to know. I guess showing Valerie spending five minutes reading the instructions on a box of tampons like Florence does might have ruined the hazy ’70s surrealist vibe.
I’ve probably seen hundreds of coming of age films over the years, but Cold November is different – I’ve never really seen this story told this way before, with the ritual of killing central to a modern adolescent’s transition towards adulthood, especially from a female perspective.
Director Jacob had a similar upbringing to Florence, and his knowledge of hunting really lends the film some veracity – I was never in any doubt that these people knew exactly what they were doing. Their respect for their weapons and the animals seems totally genuine, which certainly helped ease me through scenes of skinning and gutting a real deer.
The whole family are sincerely portrayed. The range of the performances is sometimes a little limited, but their rawness gave the film a naturalistic, semi-improvisational feel. By the end of the movie, I genuinely felt for Florence and her kin. Jacob, playing Florence’s uncle Craig, saves the best bit of writing for himself and delivers it wonderfully – I was moved almost to tears by his final scene with Abas.
There are a few bum notes, the main one being Jacob’s decision to visualize the deceased Sweeney in a dream/ghost sequence. The actress playing her is done up in standard issue Dead Girl Ghost makeup and garments and wanders around in a spooky way. It’s trite and not very effectively done, and harms the film’s almost vérité style. We’re in no doubt that Sweeney died tragically from the moment she’s first mentioned and her loss hangs palpably over the whole family, so portraying her as a pale ghost in a white nightie cheapens it somewhat.
Later on Jacob throws in a misguided directorial flourish, giving us a camera view from inside the carcass of a deer. It’s a small detail but it feels jokey and almost ostentatious compared to the low-key nature of the rest of the film, and unnecessarily draws attention to the film making. And some scenes could have done with a bit more of a trim – some peter out while others meander on past their natural conclusion. Given the slender nature of the plot, a more rigorous edit might have made an occasionally saggy 90 minute movie a more incisive 85 minute one.
Overall, Cold November is one of my most pleasant surprises of the year so far. It’s a film I expected to hate which ended up really resonating with me, and also caused me to examine my own beliefs a little. Going back to the current gun debate, the conversation is so vastly polarized that sometimes it’s easy to forget that there are some people in the middle just going about their lives, and I certainly came out with much respect for this particular type of gun owner.
It also made me confront my own hypocrisy again, as a liberal meat eater who supposedly objects to animal cruelty but still contributes to the industrialised mass slaughter of animals, dropping a cellophane wrapped chicken into my shopping basket without giving hardly a thought to how the creature got there. I know, to a degree, but I choose not to think about it. At least these guys in the film have the nuts to look their dinner in the eye before they kill it, and face the consequences of that action. There’s an honesty to that, one which I’ll probably never experience.
Posted on 24/05/2018, in blogging, cinema, Drama, Film, Reviews, Teen and tagged Alaina Lucy Riviera, Anna Klemp, Bijou Abas, Cold November film, coming of age, Heidi Fellner, Karl Jacob, Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding, rite of passage. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.