Thunder Perfect Mind
Peter (Vincent Kartheiser) and Chloe (Olivia Thirlby) are newlyweds on something of an impromptu honeymoon after boarding a research vessel in Argentina en route through the Southern Ocean to Antarctica. It’s a working vacation of sorts for Peter though as he’s a writer fascinated with the continent, the sea and the wildlife that surrounds them. The couple are at ease physically and sexually, but it’s clear in their communication – and lack thereof – that not all is well. As he devotes his attention to conversation with a renowned whale biologist (Roger Payne, playing himself) she finds herself drifting aimlessly well outside her own element.
That emotional current takes her right into the path of Captain Emerson (Billy Campbell), and soon Peter and Chloe’s young marriage hits choppy waters… well, you get the idea.
Red Knot places the sad ugliness of a relationship in jeopardy against the stark beauty of a harsh and unforgiving landscape. All three of the main actors give strong and affecting performances, and the photography is continually gorgeous, but the characters and their stories can’t quite keep pace with the drama we know is churning beneath the surface.
Writer/director Scott Cohen tells his story most successfully through the imagery – no surprise as he’s a photographer by trade – and while the metaphor of an icy landscape literally crumbling around them may be a bit too spot on occasionally it’s made forgivable by the sheer beauty on display. Cohen favors an abundance of soft focus with his cast while crafting sharp, awe-inspiring views of the ocean and ice-covered land masses that surround them all. Dialogue gives many of the details of what ails the marriage, but hints of strife are on display throughout in the glances between husband and wife when they know the other isn’t looking.
She wants children, but he doesn’t yet share that desire. She tries to be a part of his conversations, but his body and eyes show suspicion that she’s stealing his spotlight with the man he’s hoping to impress. Eventually, and understandably, she begins to feel displaced from his life – and her honeymoon – and it’s then that her wanderings lead her to find other sources of conversation and attention. We’re given multiple dialogue-free sequences with expressions and landscape speaking volumes about the building loneliness and discontent, and a brief scene of Chloe watching Roman Polanski’s The Knife In the Water is no accident. There’s trouble brewing.
But for all that Cohen communicates visually his script and characters can’t quite manage the same. The issues between Peter and Chloe are well-tread territory dramatically-speaking, and nothing new is added to the`conversation here. She feels isolated, he’s putting his career first, Captain Emerson is tall, dark and roguish – we’ve seen this trio before. (Granted, they’ve usually been in less attractive settings, but still.) Cohen seems more comfortable working in emotion, pictures and metaphors – we see a researcher lower microphones into the water to listen for harmonious whale songs, but something on the boat is making it impossible to hear – and the script’s attempt to incorporate manufactured drama in its opening and closing minutes ultimately falls flat.
The film opens in medias res with a distraught Peter and a concerned Chloe looking about nervously on the Antarctic shore before cutting to Emerson’s inconclusive rescue attempt. The opening credits interrupt the proceedings, and when we return we’ve moved back a few weeks as the happy couple boards the ship. We’re back to that beginning as the film approaches its end, but Cohen makes an oddly empty and unfulfilling choice in regard to a resolution.
But damn it sure is pretty. The cast fares similarly as while their characters aren’t quite given enough to do and think the performances are effective across the board. Kartheiser has played far worse husbands (Mad Men) but elevates Peter’s weakness without groveling. Thirlby plays both sides equally well as she’s hurt and saddened before turning down the temperature on her love. It’s Campbell though who brings a surprising degree of warmth to his supporting turn as a man who’s loved, lost and left it all behind.
At only 80 minutes Red Knot is an easy and attractive watch. The cast is appealing and talented, the cinematography is gorgeous and there are moments of real pain on display as the fragility of one couple’s love is tested. There’s a very fine short film here if you remove some of the numerous landscape sequences and the false drama that bookends it all, but as it stands it’s still a gorgeous travelogue over some icy terrain.
The Upside: Beautiful photography; strongly acted by all three leads
The Downside: Characters lack depth beyond surface traits; ends with unresolved and falsely heightened drama that has no bearing on narrative
On the Side: Roger Payne’s real life wife, actress Lisa Harrow, is also in the film as herself. She has a child in real life from an earlier relationship with Sam Neill who starred in one of the greatest “couple in peril on the water” movies ever – Dead Calm.