Alice Eve is one of those classically trained British actresses (she went to Westminster and Oxford) who, when she showed up in Hollywood, was quickly (and erroneously) labeled the "next big thing" and forced to perform in a series of middling movies where the biggest demand placed upon her was to look really, really cute. So it's with some relief that she is able to actually, you know, act, in "Cold Comes the Night," a wintery film noir in which Eve plays a put-upon single mother who gets embroiled in a plot to retrieve a bag of money from a crooked cop. While not exactly high art, it allows Eve to do more than just strip down to her underwear, which was the only memorable thing J.J. Abrams allowed her to do in "Star Trek Into Darkness." The rest of "Cold Comes the Night," however, is less commendable.
When a movie opens up on a snow globe, you know that a) it has balls and b) there's no way that it's ever going to be able to follow through. By referencing "Citizen Kane," even casually, the filmmakers are asking for trouble. And yet, "Cold Comes the Night," in one of those film noir-y flash forwards, begins with a push in on a snow globe, as blustery gusts kick up hundred dollar bills smeared with blood. This is a tantalizing image, for sure, but also speaks to one of the movie's largest problems, which is that every homage, reference, and illusion feels calculated and manicured for maximum impact. Oftentimes, though, that impact doesn't come, and even in these early moments it's kind of a struggle to care.
We're quickly introduced to Chloe (Eve), who runs a shabby motel that seems to be frequented almost exclusively by prostitutes and other assorted lowlifes. The setting is upstate New York, near enough to the Canadian border that people looking for a quick getaway might stop for the night and seek seedy lodging. Chloe lives with her Sophia (Ursula Parker) at the motel (her husband is dead), which a social worker informs her is no place for a young child. She has two weeks to relocate or the state will take her daughter away.
"Cold Comes the Night" was co-written and directed by Tze Chun, whose heartfelt "Children of Invention" was the toast of Sundance a few years back, and who lets the quiet scenes of domesticity between Eve and her daughter unfold with an earthy grace. Eve has let the luster of her blonde hair dull to the color of mud-spackled straw, and her face is gaunt and unadorned by make-up; you can see the hardship in her eyes. What's more—you can tell that she would do just about anything to save her child from ending up in a similarly precarious position. Throughout the movie she squirrels away spare change into a wad of bills, the rainy day fund for their new life together, and there's a palpable desperation in the physicality of her performance that's powerful all on its own.
Of course, since this is a thriller, the plot mechanics start kicking in almost immediately, which means a scary Russian killer named Topo (Bryan Cranston) stops at the motel and ends up being stranded there after his young partner is murdered by a local whore (she stabs him to death before getting herself shot, don't worry). This means that Topo forms an uneasy alliance with Chloe to retrieve the money that he desperately needs, from the impacted vehicle that is now under police control. Cranston tries hard to make the character interesting; his Russian accent is slightly more nuanced than the typical Communist thug routine and he allows the character to be more vulnerable, thanks to his poor eyesight. Like Chloe, he is a character who is backed into a corner and has to scramble wildly to get out of it. It's just that, no matter how hard Cranston tries, his character doesn't make a whole lot of sense, either from a storytelling standpoint or physiologically (for a man whose vision is so bad, he's able to murder people with an alarming accuracy).
Chloe makes a proposition: he'll help him retrieve the money if he doesn't use it for whatever shadily defined criminal activity he's using it for (it involves French Canadian gangsters, the least threatening gangsters there ever was) and instead they can split it and each start out on their own lives. He agrees, which means she's got to steal back the money that's already been nabbed by a dirty local cop (and her sometime lover and partner in crime), played by Tom Hardy lookalike Logan Marshall Green, who is content to coast on cartoon-y dickishness.
As the movie moves along, it tries to provide a series of worthwhile twists and turns that make sense from a plot perspective and also resonate emotionally. Chun admirably attempts to make each thriller-y motion mean a little bit more. But oftentimes he fails, and the back half of the movie is filled with perfunctory suspense set pieces, doused in blood and full of trauma, that leave little impact. Maybe this is because he chooses to sideline the daughter completely. Considering she is the driving force behind every action that Chloe makes, it's a little odd to have her out of the movie entirely. There's also a self-seriousness to the film that is suffocating. "Cold Comes the Night" is clearly modeled on snowy, small town thrillers like "Fargo" and "A Simple Plan." But those movies had bursts of levity that made the underlying grimness even more shocking. There's a fair amount of uplift to the closing moments of "Cold Comes the Night," but it feels like too little, too late. The film will leave you positively chilly … and wishing Eve's talents had been suited by a better movie. [C]