The crime thriller is a well-tread genre, one that has evolved with each new generation and the changes in both the world of film and criminal cunning. However, the history of the genre still reverberates to this day; perhaps its most influential and artistic flowering came with the emergence of film noir, a dark style of gritty crime focused cinema full of expressionism, intelligence and moral ambiguity. Tzu Chun’s Cold Comes the Night attempts to channel the tone of film noir through a gritty modern crime story of murky morality and deception that is both a success and something of a failure.

Cold Comes the Night sees Chloe, a struggling motel owner and single mother, taken hostage by a nearly blind career criminal, who needs her to help him retrieve an item of value from the jeep he was travelling in, which is now in the custody of a crooked local cop who has a history with Chloe, before he runs out of time and his clients come for him. As time runs down, and cross meets double cross, the situation goes from bad…to deadly.

Visually, Tzu Chun’s astute direction is channelled with a distinct sensibility of icy modern noir, which makes the film feel both harsh and stylish at the same time. This is displayed from the first image of the film: a child’s snow globe perched in the foreground, as bloody dollar bills fly in slow motion in the background, framed within a window; a clash of fantasy and reality between two very different “snow globes.” This is an image of simple beauty and the brutality that lurks around it, a metaphor for the film itself, both as a narrative and in terms of Chun’s direction. Chun never utilizes excessive flair or stylisation to express the complex world and twisting narrative vividly. Instead, he illustrates a meticulous formal detail, favouring technique and composition to capture the little details and contrasts within the world of the film, allowing the textures of the character’s lives and environment to express their personalities and psychologies, bleeding into their relationships as they all collide. In favouring technique over flair, the film is stronger as a result, and feels even more like a throwback to the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s, where formal rigidity and expressionism coalesced into a powerful art.

ob_f021c4_cold-comes-the-night-photo-4The film’s noir styling can also be seen in the world around the characters. It is a cold space, defined by a sense of absence: people drift through this location, rarely settling, and often no more than a night; all lost souls in a lost town, in a forgotten part of the USA. This physical dislocation of the characters reflects the moral dislocation they wrestle with, a classic element of film noir psychology. Indeed, this sense of dislocation is embodied in the key location of Chloe’s Motel, a lonely space, where people drift through, often to partake in illicit behaviour (established immediately with the presence of a prostitute who treats Chloe with distain) or run away from their problems or move on with their lives. The fact that Chloe and her daughter live in this place permanently illustrates how lost she has become, and her desperation to find a real home, the desire that fuels her character’s journey into a far murkier world. The music and sound design are also particularly effective in reinforcing the tone of the film; the hauntingly simple beats that play behind the action juxtapose the subtle and the direct in a fashion that creeps up on the audience, working in tandem with the visual movement to create a measured and precise harmony of image and sound.

Despite the promising visual style and understanding of tone on display, Cold Comes the Night suffers from a disappointing narrative at its core. For a film that, on the surface, appears to add a couple of interesting wrinkles (the relationship between a visually impaired career criminal and a young mother treated poorly by life and fighting for her daughter, against the backdrop of a motel setting) to a crime narrative about greed, desire and professionalism; it feels painfully formulaic and predictable. As the film progresses, the narrative beats and twists can be neatly telegraphed, making the film feel almost forced, never as natural in terms of a story, as the visual discipline Chun displays overall. It’s a testament to the performers and Chun’s direction that the film is still imbued with such a tremendous amount of tone and a noirish fever.

Alice Eve surprises in the lead role of Chloe, a young mother who has lost so much it seems the only hope left in her life is her daughter, Sophia. Eve delivers a performance that rings true emotionally; never moving into hysterics or playing the weak woman under siege; she plays Chloe with a gentle nature that belies the determination that burns within her. At times, she moves from vulnerability into to revealing an edge of manipulation and personal desire, reminiscent of the femme fatale, but rather than this be presented with malice and pleasure, these moments come with an instant expression or, toward the film’s conclusion, an outburst of nervous energy that perfectly illustrates the character’s tension with such moral decisions between what’s right and what she wants.

Logan Marshall-Green also gives a performance of quality with limited time as the corrupt and emotionally imbalanced cop Billy, one that could have easily descended into scenery chewing pantomime; instead, Marshall-Green emphasises the character’s desperation and vulnerability through paranoiac physicality and a tender sense of longing towards Chloe that always seems to be on the edge of pouring out of him, until the character’s disintegration in a frenzied climax. Bryan Cranston plays the quasi-villainous, near-blind criminal Topo with the right balance of menace, grizzled professional and sense of loss, to craft an endearing and complex character; however, considering the ability and power he has consistently displayed in Breaking Bad, it feels as if the character is somewhat holding him back, and worst of all, the narrative doesn’t afford him the creative space to deliver an exceptional performance; one that tantalisingly feels like it is there in the bones of the character, but alas, is disappointingly never unleashed.

Ultimately, Cold Comes the Night is a classy twisting thriller, rich in noir tones that adds to the grit and amplifies the style of the film, directed with a cold elegance by Tzu Chun. However, despite its tonal and visual impact, a weak and imbalanced narrative reinforces the pervading sense that the film is lacking the power to truly affect the audience, emotionally and viscerally; a flaw that critically damages an otherwise skilfully presented slice of modern American noir.

VERDICT: [rating=3]

About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980’s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: mattpaul61@o2.co.uk