We crawled out of the sea long ago, and now something has followed.
Opening a new film with Nietzsche’s eminently familiar quote regarding the abyss and all the looking isn’t the best way to suggest to viewers that they’re in for something fresh and original, but happily Xavier Gens‘ isn’t interested in giving us something traditional. The various parts of Cold Skin might remind of earlier films, but Gens uses them to build a brutal and brittle world where the shape of water is death and despair.
It’s 1914, and Friend (David Oakes) arrives on a desolate island near the Antarctic Circle to replace a recently deceased meteorologist. The only other human soul on the island is a hairy bastard named Gruner (Ray Stevenson) who serves as lighthouse keeper and is wholly disinterested in the newcomer. The lighthouse has been modified with defensive dressing, and Friend discovers why later that night. Humanoid creatures rise from the sea after the sun sets and attack any humans on land.
Friend joins forces with Gruner to fight off the beasts, but he quickly discovers the man’s relationship with the “monsters” has a wrinkle — he’s house-trained a female to be his companion.
Gens’ fourth feature is easily his most accomplished and complete, and while Cold Skin lacks the stylish action of Hitman (2007) or the graphic cruelty of Frontiers (2007) and The Divide (2011) it succeeds where they don’t in crafting a starkly beautiful world both foreign and familiar. This landscape is one most of us will never see in real life, but the actions and impulses of its human residents are far too recognizable. Mankind seeks to destroy what it fears and doesn’t understand, and Friend is far too easily lulled into Gruner’s mindset that the nocturnal visitors should be obliterated.
The female Aneris (Aura Garrido) complicates things. Friend is repulsed by Gruner’s treatment of her as some web-footed amalgamation of servant, pet, and sex partner, but it’s not long before amorous feelings rise in his own loins. A fissure between the two men grows as Friend comes to see her and her sea monkey-kind as more human than animal, but therein rests the observation that he’s so very blind to — man too is an animal. “We’re never too far from those we hate,” says Friend, and it sums up the film’s theme rather concisely. People, by their very nature, are seemingly unable to resist the pull of violence towards their fellow humans. It’s understood that we treat non-humans poorly, but our own kind hardly fares better. There are only two humans on this island, and their violent clash is a sadly inevitable one.
Gens and writers Jesús Olmo and Eron Sheean lay the groundwork for the characters, and both Stevenson and Oakes do strong work bringing them to life. The former is no stranger to playing brutes, and that trend continues here albeit with an air of loneliness and confused affection. Oakes, meanwhile, presents a character whose drive shifts from one of tired reticence to someone far more motivated. Garrido’s work is less flashy but integral to the story and the men’s relationship.
The film’s visuals are a pairing of a visibly cold, calm, and rocky landscape and the frenetic action of the night with cinematographer Daniel Aranyó finding a deliberate contrast between the icy grays and blues and the bright blasts of gunfire and flame. The amphibious marauders storm the shore, burst through doors, and scale the lighthouse wall itself as the men fight back with fire and bullets. Gens captures the siege sequences with a nightmarish energy, and the final conflict grows to an explosive finale before offering a hand of possible redemption to the survivors.
Cold Skin is an attractive creature feature about our own tendency to act like monsters. It’s a small scale blend of The Shape of Water and Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, and now you know if it’s for you.