In 2009, writer-director Tze Chun garnered much acclaim with his debut feature Children of Invention, a semi-autobiographical film about a single mother and her two children struggling to make ends meet in suburban Boston. At first glance, Chun's follow-up, the new film Cold Comes the Night, would seem to be a radical departure; this is very much a genre piece, with the familiar elements of a duffel bag full of cash, scary men with guns, dirty cops, and such.
A closer look, however, reveals that. thematically, the two films have much in common. Both films are dramatically fueled by the desperation of their single mom protagonists, who are in great need of money to give themselves and their children a better life. Also, both films are closely attuned to the small details of financial struggle, perennially relevant concerns in these times of economic uncertainty and instability.
The plot engine is put into motion when Chloe (Alice Eve), who runs a seedy motel in upstate New York, is told by a social worker that she has two weeks to clear out of the place, or have her daughter Sophia (Ursula Parker) taken away. Chloe has been saving money for quite a while, amassing a rolled-up wad of cash that she treats as a magic talisman, one that will allow her to escape her dead-end existence. Chloe has allowed Billy (Logan Marshall-Green), a crooked cop and her ex-boyfriend, to run a prostitution operation out of the hotel, which also provides her extra money.
However, the dangers of such an arrangement become very clear when a prostitute and her client are found dead in one of the rooms after a sex session gone wrong. The client turns out to be a partner of Topo (Bryan Cranston), a hulking, menacing, half-blind Russian who holds Chloe up at gunpoint and forces her to help him recover the money Topo and his partner were transporting, and which was lost when their car was impounded by police after the murder.
Alice quickly understands that they are both in similarly desperate situations, and are having the squeeze put on them by superior forces: she by government authorities and Topo by his gangster bosses. Alice reveals herself to be much more resourceful and wily about gaining some measure of control over the situation. She also begins to see some possibility of getting her hands on some of that money herself. However, she must navigate a murderous thicket of double-crosses and deal with clashing agendas of everyone involved, including Billy, who also has designs on the cash. Money as both death trap and salvation are the thematic throughlines that echo throughout.
The genre elements of this piece are very familiar, even over-familiar. But Tze Chun, who scripted the film with Osgood Perkins and Nick Simon, displays a deft handling of these materials, with a stylish and atmospheric look that belies its status as a lower-budgeted production.
Also elevating the film beyond its well-worn crime thriller tropes are the central performances by Alice Eve and Bryan Cranston. Eve is never less than thoroughly believable as a woman whose actions derive from her fierce desire to create a better future for herself and her daughter. Cranston, in his first screen role post-Breaking Bad, also impresses in conveying the quietly dangerous aspects of his character. Though he has far less space to develop this character than he did in his more famous role, he effectively lends nuance to his portrayal, with shadings that render him more than a one-dimensional bad guy.
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