At first glance, you might assume Cold Pursuit is another paint-by-numbers Liam Neeson vehicle. With a special set of skills, a gravelly voiced everyman hunts down every fool who dared mess with his family. And yeah, that pretty much sums up the plot of this one. But the tone of this revenge thriller is edged with a macabre and slightly zany sense of humor that makes it a cheeky and twisted delight.
Neeson stars as Nels Coxman, a humble snowplow driver who dedicates himself to his family and to work, keeping “a strip of civilization open for people.” Through an endless field of towering snow, Nels carves a path for others to follow to civilization. It’s not a glamorous job, but it’s an important one, and Nels is proud of the path he’s chosen. But when his grown son Kyle (Micheál Richardson) turns up dead, Nels is lost in grief that leads him down a path of murder and vengeance. Nels will kill his way up the chain of command, inciting a turf war between two rival drug dealers that will leave sprays of blood in the snow and a pile of bodies for the wildlife to feast on.
You’re probably thinking, “Yeah, Kristy, that sounds hilarious.” Well, that’s premise. The humor is in the execution. Director Hans Petter Moland brings a subtle lunacy to the film that allows us to chuckle even at its bleakest bits. It’s found in the moment when Kyle’s body is being presented to his shocked parents, and they must sit through the grinding minutiae of the morgue attendant bringing out the corpse and cranking up its steel table with a droning squeak squeak squeak. It’s in the fallen twenty dollar bill’s scorched bullet hole that tells of a horrific but poetic justice delivered just out of frame. It’s in the Christmas music that plays blithely over Nels disposing of the body of a gangster called Santa, and the jaunty score of plucked mandolins that sounds like Deadwood meets Benny Hill.
The supporting cast leans into this nearly camp sense of humor. Bad guys named Speedo, Limbo, and The Eskimo radiate with bluster and bravado that’s edging into cartoonish. But the baddest of all is Trevor ‘Viking’ Calcote (Tom Bateman), whose crisp elocution is as cutting as his ruthless business sense. Whether he’s giving dubious life advice to his young son, ordering a hit, or bickering with his fed-up ex-wife, Viking spits out his lines like he’s mad at them. This manic rage and staccato delivery makes Viking a well-paired foil to White Bull (Tom Jackson), the Native American kingpin who he assumes is to blame for his MIA cronies. Jackson brings a grounded world-weariness and slicing side-eye to the role that has him facing all kinds of white nonsense, from Viking’s brash violence to the tourist trap ski lodge’s every surface—even its check-in desk—draped in thick white fur that’s fastidiously combed by the white hostess with a painfully wide smile. These crews colliding takes up maybe 60% of the screentime, giving Cold Pursuit a gangster comedy vibe that feels faintly like a Coen Bros. comedy. And while Neeson’s section has laughs, he’s never the one delivering the punchlines.
Nels’ story is one of grief, and it’s told with a more solemn tone and tender details. Laura Dern appears briefly to play Nels’ wife, who at first is doting, cooking deer stew, coaching him through intimidating dinner parties, and helping him with his cufflinks. But the death of Kyle shatters her. In a silent scene, she wanders out into the whipping cold in socked feet and a robe, wandering aimless and wounded. Before his funeral, she will not offer to clip Nels’ cufflinks. After, she will not inquire where her husband goes at night. And her Dear John note will be as white, blank, and unforgiving at the landscape he plows throw every day. Some will say Dern is wasted in such a role. But for me, she was perfection, deftly bringing nuanced and rattling heartbreak to a small but pivotal supporting role.
As for Neeson, his performance is not his standard action star schtick. The grizzled bravado and brute strength is replaced by tragic resignation and withering stamina. He will lose his wife too. He will kill. He will follow this road until he gets his revenge or winds up dead. Early on, there’s a scene where a devastated Nels stoically places a rifle’s barrel between his lips. An unexpected intervention stops him from pulling the trigger, but I marveled all the same. This broken man is not the Neeson we see in his Taken-like films. Nels does not relish the killing. There are no witty one-liners. No smirks as he lands a kill shot or dumps 10 kilos of coke into the snow or chucks corpses into a gorge to be carried away by a raging river. It’s a job, just like plowing the roads. He’s trying to carve a path back to civilization, but this time it involves guns, chicken wire, and pummelling men to death with his bare hands.
At times, Cold Pursuit feels like two movies quirkily joined together. But that’s part of the point. Nels was a man who chose a life away from crime, violence, and drug deals. He was on a different path, in a different movie. Because of the hit put out on his boy, he’s carving a new route and a new storyline. This makes Cold Pursuit exciting and unpredictable, that is if you didn’t see In Order of Disappearance, the Norwegian thriller from which this was remade. Moland helmed that one too. And even if you compare the trailers, you’ll see shot-for-shot re-enactments and recycled jokes. I hadn’t seen In Order of Disappearance, so this was all new to me. I don’t fault Moland for repeating himself. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And if American audiences are woefully resistant to watching subtitled movies, remake your movie as shot-for-shot as you want to show them what they’re missing! (In Order of Disappearance is available for rent online, and I’ll be getting on it soon.)
And now to the elephant in the review. I saw Cold Pursuit before Neeson gave his shocking recounting of the time he wished to commit a hate crime after learning a family member had been raped. So, those horrid remarks did not influence my opinion of the movie as they might yours if/when you watch Cold Pursuit. I will note his comments do not reflect this material as there is no sexual assault in the film and race is not a factor in the revenge plot. For me, this movie was a daring genre-bender that explored grief and vengeance while offering heartwrenching moments alongside guffaw-inducing ones. It’s f*cked up, surprising, and fun. And it’s a shame that Moland’s thoughtful American remake is being overshadowed by the unrelated but alarming remarks of its star.