Centigrade (2020)

FEBRUARY 26, 2021


My heart sunk when Centigrade began and it showed our two protagonists already trapped in their car (that's the one line plot of the movie, for those unaware), because I feared the never-welcome "12 hours earlier" text would come along any second to show how they ended up in that predicament. But thankfully, that moment never came! Writer/director Brendan Walsh instead opts for the lesser of two evils: characters telling each other what they already know in order to convey information to the audience, and in turn he is able to keep the film confined to the car and his cast confined to just the people in the car - no flashbacks, no third party appearing as a would-be savior when we know damn well they won't be rescued halfway through the movie, no nothing. Even Buried had a bigger cast list.

So how DOES our hero couple end up trapped in their own car? Turns out they were driving back to their hotel and got tired, so they pulled over to rest, underestimating both how long they would sleep and also how brutal the storm was/would get. It takes place in Norway, so maybe this is just how it is there, but the scenario doesn't quite make sense as they seem to be in the total middle of nowhere despite returning to their hotel from a book signing - wouldn't these things be relatively close together? Or at least within a fully developed part of the country? Since they are trapped in the car (the ice/snow has frozen the doors/window and also covered it up) it seems setting it super far from anywhere was just kind of overkill - the plot would work even if they were just in a parking lot of an abandoned gas station or something.

But those shots showing how covered their car is/how far they are from civilization are among the only shots in the film that are set outside the car; without spoiling any particulars, there is less than five minutes in the 90 minute movie where the camera isn't inside the six-seater SUV (or similar; I'm not a car guy) with our two heroes. The leads are Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez) and Matt (Vincent Piazza) and I truly hope they liked each other in real life, because their characters are at odds from earlier events and - unless the film employs the most convincing split screen technology in history - are stuck together for just about every frame of the film, as where can they really go? Even when the focus is on one character, you can usually see the other behind them. If the two actors couldn't stand being near each other, this must have been the least pleasant shoot in history.

Naturally there's an even bigger complication: Naomi is pregnant and just about to pop, and if you don't think she will actually have to have the baby inside a frozen car with no medical supplies, you haven't seen a movie before. Amusingly enough, Rodriguez is an old hand at this; she was the mom in Hours, which was one of Paul Walker's last movies and also involved her character having to give birth while also battling the elements (Hurricane Katrina, in that one). I hope she does another one during an earthquake or something so we can have a makeshift trilogy. But if you've seen Hours I want to assure you that's where the similarities end; Ms. Rodriguez is around for much longer in this one, and gets to deal with the ickiest use of placenta since the song "Lightning Crashes".

Unlike most movies of this type, there's a built in excuse to stretch it out for several days (weeks, in fact), as they're eventually able to open the window a crack and get some water, and since they're on vacation of sort (she's an author doing a book tour) they have extra clothes to bundle up. Frozen is one of the gold standards for this kind of movie in my opinion, but with that one there was a five day timer (when the ski lift reopened) that the characters simply couldn't wait out due to not having access to any water or lengthy protection from the elements. Here, with an unlimited water supply and ironic insulation from the ice that's keeping them stuck (it's called "The Igloo Effect"), Walsh is able to keep them in there for nearly a month without it being too ridiculous (it's supposedly based on a true story, but as is often the case that should be translated as "We got the idea from a few news stories about people who were in a very minor version of this situation"). Hell, in 2012 a man survived twice as long, so implausible as it might seem when "Day 24" appears on screen, you can't say it's impossible, and the lack of a definitive "this is when we will die" mark keeps the tension high.

This situation also keeps armchair quarterbacks from having too many opportunities to scoff and say "I'd just do this". They don't have any tools (the headrest for one of the seats is their closest thing to a "shovel"), and the risk of smashing a window that's butted with who knows how much heavy snow/ice on the other side has them wisely opting to play it safer and just try to dig a hole through the open part of the window, because if they just smash it and still can't get through they've also lost part of their insulation. In many of these real life situations, it's the people who basically did nothing that survived, so each sort of "OK, I'm going to get us out of this!" type of move is foolish.

It also helps that the characters, while not in perfect harmony, aren't insufferable either. Their occasional spats are mostly out of panic and frustration as opposed to their deep-seeded problems; their biggest blowout is probably in the first scene when they first wake up and realize that they're stuck. The most unlikable character is probably the damn baby, who (naturally) cries a lot, increasing their frustration while also reminding parents of how miserable they were when their own newborn arrived. Anytime you feel your little one has grown up too fast, this would make an excellent movie to remind you that no, them being able to talk and sleep through the night and feed themselves is a wonderful thing.

Like all films of this type, you'll probably never want to watch it a second time, and IFC/Shout hasn't bothered to make it any more enticing to buy as the disc has no extras beyond the trailer (it also has a descriptive audio track, which is nice to see and hopefully becomes a standard), but it's certainly worth a rental if you enjoy such films. I recently watched another one called Breaking Surface, about two women who go scuba diving and one of them gets trapped by a rockslide, and while it had its share of nail-biter moments it also kept deflating the tension since the one who wasn't trapped kept leaving to go get air, tools, etc, which made it more of a routine ticking clock rescue movie, focusing on things like "She can't find the key to the trunk" instead of her sister, stuck under a rock with dwindling air supply. The best of these types stick with the situation you at home will hopefully never be able to identify with in the slightest, and in that regard Centigrade hits all its marks with the added bonus of being impressively boxed in from the production side of things (which makes a lack of a commentary or making of fairly disappointing). And it reaffirmed that I never ever want to drive in snowy conditions again, so: win win!

What say you?


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