Released Sep. 7, 2018
Unrated (equal to R rating for creature violence, thematic elements, nudity, and aberrant sexual content) – 1hr 48min
Directed by Xavier Gens
Starring Ray Stevenson, David Oakes, Aura Garrido
A man (Oakes) with a mysterious past takes a job as a weather observer on a desolate island near the Antarctic Circle. Upon arrival, he meets the island’s only other resident, the eccentric misanthrope Gruner (Stevenson), and is informed rather unconvincingly that his predecessor died of typhus during his year-long mission. Come nightfall, however, he learns there are much greater things to fear than Gruner lurking about.
To an extent, it’s like an adaptation of I Am Legend, if H.P. Lovecraft had written it instead of Richard Matheson. However, the themes explored throughout Cold Skin are more related to Matheson’s work than they are to the cosmic terror of Lovecraft’s stories. Regardless, the film approaches its subject matter as both a visual epic and as a contemplative narrative.
Starting out, Cold Skin presents its story as a man’s struggle for survival against things he doesn’t understand in a place he probably shouldn’t be. That, along with the early 1900’s time period, the isolated setting, the verbose philosophizing intellectual who serves as both the protagonist & narrator, and, perhaps most obviously, the vicious humanoid sea dwellers who persistently raid the island are all staples that would suggest the film to be a quintessential Lovecraftian tale. Without turning this into a bio of the immensely complicated and infamously xenophobic author, his works explored almost exclusively fear of the unknown & unknowable and the possibility of humanity’s lack of value in the greater scheme of things. Despite the setup, that’s not where this movie decides to go.
Within the first half hour, Cold Skin shifts its focus largely to the precarious coexistence between the nameless protagonist and the brutish roughshod Gruner, who lords over the derelict isle’s lighthouse. To complicate matters, Gruner is obsessed with exterminating the aquatic humanoids, all the while keeping a female sea person captive as an abused pet and sex slave. While Ray Stevenson gives the lout a very compelling portrayal, he’s hellishly unlikable and the nameless dude – who I’m tempted to just name Bob for the sake of simplicity – generally regards Gruner with the mildest of irritation. Considering we know so little about him, it’s difficult to really understand or reconcile any of his – Bob’s – motivations, reactions, or contemplations on anything, as they all become quite contradictory when examined as a whole. Maybe that’s the point – the film is based on a novel by Albert Sánchez Piñol that I have never read, so I’m somewhat unsure on the matter, and that raises an interesting issue with the movie.
Apparently, this is an extremely faithful adaptation of that book, which is a rare thing in the film world. While book lovers often convey their disappointment in adaptations of their favorite novels, that’s generally because the nature of the storytelling itself needs to be radically transformed to compliment the attributes of another medium. Literature is exclusively for the imagination while film is predominantly an audiovisual experience, and without going into a lecture on psychology, the way we process the two types of information are dramatically different. Of course, the essence of the same story can be told in both formats, but what is successful for the one does not translate directly to the other – changes need be made. That is a very specific diagnosis as to why the pacing, tone, and overall narrative presentation of Cold Skin comes across as awkward and off-putting. The pursuit of faithful adaptation is a noble one, but in my opinion, is also a self-inflicted injury.
Despite a story that moves in erratic jolts that drag down the pace, Cold Skin is a beautifully directed movie. The scope of Xavier Gens’ filmmaking talent has expanded greatly since his debut, Frontier(s). While I liked that movie more than this one, Gens has grown from a director of backwoods horror to one who is capable of an epic. This isn’t quite the great one yet, but damn it if he wasn’t close. The cinematography work of Daniel Aranyó needs to be commended here as well for likewise making the film visually spectacular. It’s an exceedingly small cast, but as alluded before, Stevenson mostly runs away with it as Gruner, but Aura Garrido deserves credit too for her wordless role as his confused and victimized captive.
There existed here all the components for a potential classic, but Cold Skin proves again that a movie starts with its script. That’s not to say that it was poorly written, but that the adaptation was perhaps ill-conceived. Aside from what I mentioned earlier, the movie also struggles with the presentation of its weighty themes. It puts them down on the table for consideration, but then hasn’t much of anything interesting to say about them other than that they exist. That would generally be easier to overlook, if those themes were not the reason the film itself seems to exist.