After making its way through the festival circuit starting in September of last year, Xavier Gens’ Cold Skin secured a wide release through online platforms this month. The film adaptation of Albert Sánchez Piñol’s debut novel does a solid job developing and harnessing the isolation present only on an island with a population of two humans but doesn’t quite hit the mark with its dive into
As the world is set to plunge into the First World War, an Irishman by the name of Friend (David Oakes) sets off to occupy the post of weatherman on an island in the South Atlantic, replacing his predecessor Aldor Vigeland. But once he arrives, Vigeland is missing, and the only other person around is a wind-beaten man called Gruner (Ray Stevenson), the lighthouse operator, who informs Friend that Vigeland died of typhus.
While Gruner imprisons himself in the lighthouse, Friend soon encounters a mysterious new species of human-amphibians, who invade the island and bring upon the destruction of his outpost. With no other option, Friend convinces Gruner to let him live at the lighthouse while they combat and fend off the species, all while Gruner keeps one as his pet and sex slave, Aneris (Aura Garrido).
Over the years we’ve received many mainstays in film lingo and jargon, such as period piece and action movies to name a few. While Cold Skin isn’t in those categories, it probably deserves to inherit the label of “atmosphere piece” for its pervading mood of desolation and isolation, balancing this out with peace and freedom. It’s paradoxical and quite a stark juxtaposition for the island to create, but it’s done effectively by setting up a dichotomy between day and night.
Anyone who wishes to inhabit an island for a yearlong assignment as a weatherman is running from the past. Friend, our mostly-reliable narrator, admits to this early on. The same can be presumed of Gruner, especially since the man would rather rot away in the confines of the lighthouse. The act of coming to the island is an escape from civilization and in some ways a search for freedom. Freedom from whatever these characters wanted to leave behind. A relationship, a job, or just society itself. The film explicitly presents some of these reasons, and in others we presume.
This freedom, peace, and tranquility are most evident during the day. In the first act, Friend starts out his weather log entries while taking in the splendor of the crashing waves and exploring the beaches for stones and seashells. He’s an observer by profession, so he observes what’s around him and we see the abundantly serene facets of nature around us.
But then at night, there’s a complete turnaround from this ambiance. This is when the creatures emerge from the ocean and lay trouble on Friend’s doorstep, after food at first, and then his life, but I suppose he is the former as well. When his attempts at self-defense end up making him an arsonist by accident, his home is left in ashes. He forcefully seeks the assistance and accommodation of Gruner, getting it, but not before discovering Gruner’s domesticated sea creature, Aneris.
At night, Friend relives the horror of the first attack again and again in the lighthouse. Gruner seems to have enjoyed a pattern of using the tower’s balcony to shoot down on the invading creatures with reckless abandon. They are invaders, but Gruner doesn’t seem in danger, and it looks more like the man’s exorcising his demons rather than anything else. Before long, he gets Friend into this ritual, fending off the creatures whenever they decide to attack, a day, a week, or a month from now.
To borrow a line from a somewhat familiar television show, the night is dark and full of terrors, while the day is empty of it. This atmosphere blankets the entire island and
As mentioned previously, the men who come to the island are running away from something. Civilization. Humans. Or even humanity. What Gruner and Friend are battling, or trying to find, is channeled through the creatures, and specifically Aneris, the domesticated female that Gruner keeps with him. His moral compass has been long abandoned as he abuses Aneris verbally and physically. He looks at her as an object rather than a person or living thing, something that can be molded to his specific desires. Gruner’s motivations on the island seem to be rooted in returning to a more primal state of living. Kill or be killed. Aneris serves as a vessel for him to channel this behavior, where he takes out his anger on her and her kind.
For Friend, Aneris is a curious specimen at the beginning. A threat to start off before becoming an exciting outlet to learn about the world, much like Darwin in the Galápagos. Both men have lost faith, and through Aneris, they would either reaffirm that choice or reverse it by the time the end credits roll. They go about different ways reaching that answer but are united briefly by the common goal of surviving the next invasion.
Because of a significant investment in the atmosphere and the characters, the story and its narrative beats emerge few and far between. I suppose that’s how it goes with these independent features and the story is obscure, taking longer to discover. But that’s welcome given how filmmakers get caught in an expository nightmare, trying to tell us rather than show us. Cold Skin opts to show us, letting the audience construe the images displayed and make sense of it on their own.
This isn’t a survival movie where the end goal is for our characters to make it out alive by defeating the creatures of the night. Instead, it tries to ascertain if our two leads can once again embrace the ways of humanity and if this humanity is exclusive to humankind or is a more universal concept inherent within other species as well.
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