'Cold Skin' Review: Come For Ray Stevenson, And That's About It
Fantasia International Film Festival is a thrilling destination for genre movie lovers. In the heart of Montreal, surrounded by swaths of fantastic pubs and restaurants, fans flock to a collection of theaters to take in a dizzying array of fantasy, science-fiction, horror, and movies that are much harder to pin down. Some of these are sensational. Some are vexing disappointments. And then there are movies like Cold Skin, which leave you with a vague “meh” feeling.
In perusing the dense catalog of titles playing Fantasia this year, I singled out Cold Skin for one reason: Ray Stevenson. The Northern Irish actor won my heart as the tough but tender Titus Pullo on Rome. He thrilled me as the dark hero of Punisher: War Zone. He brought a brutish charm and sparked barking laughs in Thor, Three Musketeers and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. So, yeah, I’m in. What it’s about was secondary.
Based on a novel by Albert Sánchez Piñol, the 1914-set Cold Skin centers on a young man called Friend (David Oakes), who is set to be the “weather official” of a far-flung and uninhabited island. His only company in this foreboding rocky crag is a snarling and haggard lighthouse operator who goes by Gruner (Ray Stevenson). But they are not alone on the island. At night, blue creatures emerge from the sea and storm the lighthouse relentlessly. Despite their distaste for each other, Friend and Gruner must team up to protect their land and survive the nights.
But this is not a story of survival. It’s one of colonization. Finding a cache of old journals from the missing man who held his position before, Friend grows an interest in these aquatic creatures, who look like humans save for their cold, blue skin and fishy features. His interest becomes personal as he begins to care for Gruner’s “pet” Aneris (Aura Garrido), a captured female of the species, which he regards cruelly as a dog or sex slave depending on his mood. Though Friend half-heartedly wonders why these creatures storm the lighthouse at night, he doesn’t call into question why Gruner slaughters them. He assumes that as man, they have the right to the land beneath their feet and the oceans beyond. It’s not until he finds a bit of jewelry on the corpse of a slain creature that Friend realizes these aren’t mindless beasts hell-bent on chaos and carnage. They are a tribe fighting like hell for their land and (mer)people against these hairy invaders, who outgun them with rifles and bombs.
Director Xavier Gens brews a suitably brooding mood that’s a pleasure to sink into. But Cold Skin’s story is startlingly simple-minded. The metaphor of colonization/slavery is easy to suss out in the first act. So Friend taking the bulk of the film to have the eureka moment that he is an invader—not the soulful hero he imagines—is a bit galling. Like, duh, dude. We’re not talking Starship Troopers, where suffocatingly jingoistic propaganda sold whole generations to conscript themselves to interplanetary colonization, convinced they were defending their beloved homelands from marauding space beasts. We’re talking a white dude who rolled up onto a foreign shore, saw creatures that look human but have some superficial difference in color and nose shape, and decided they must be monsters until he saw they have a culture of their own. Just, duh. From there, Cold Skin doesn’t have anywhere satisfying to go or anything fresh to say.
I wouldn’t recommend this movie for the plot. But if you’re a fan of Stevenson, it’s still worth a watch. Even as a grotesque, murdering, racist rapist, he is ruthlessly riveting. It’s not a fun watch, mind you. It’s distinctly disturbing to see Stevenson shed his gruff charisma to give himself fully to the role of a dastardly bastard.
Beyond this, fans of SYFY’s Face Off and the movie magic of monster makeup will revel in the character designs of the merpeople. With a lithe physicality, Garrido brings a simple sweetness, surreal strangeness, and lovely grace to Aneris. Though she has no discernible speech, Garrido emotes beautifully, expressing warmth, resignment, fear, and mourning through the face-transforming makeup. She brings the humanity, essentially. And so, Garrido almost single-handedly brings the heart that makes this chilly tale of dominance and ignorance bearable.
Ultimately, Cold Skin is a solid pic for a lazy Sunday in, or—if MoviePass still exists by the time it opens—a “sure, why not” trip to the theater. It’s not deep, but it is moody and moving. You could do worse with your time.
Cold Skin made its Canadian Premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival. It will open in the US on September 7.
Header Image Source: Samuel Goldwyn Films