by Alvin G. Burstein
This movie begins with an Oscar Wilde epigram: “Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go.” That sets the tone for this movie, both in substance and in style. It is a movie centered on murderous revenge—a death that brings happiness to an avenger. And Wildean ironic humor is reflected in the film’s slyly funny moments. A hoodlum breakfasting on Fruit Loops while his child companion is downing a green drink. Wry exchanges between two cops about the degree of criminality in smoking pot. The film’s arch sociopath’s tantrum when a kidnapper fails to follow underworld rules about how to behave.
The movie is about killing for revenge, and many viewers will regard it as a splatter film because of its gross out graphic detail. But there is more to it than the gore and the comic counterpoint. Some literary critics talk about “inter-textuality,” the notion that every story one is told (or tells) is shaped and illuminated by the other stories known to the writer and to his or her audience. Cold Pursuit resonates strongly with the American classic Moby Dick. In Herman Melville’s whaling saga, Captain Ahab is a monomaniac. His rage driven thirst to kill the whale responsible for Ahab’s losing his leg has emptied his life of any other purpose or capacity for pleasure. As he puts it, “I am demoniac, madness maddened!…The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails on which my soul is grooved to run.” The compulsion leads to the destruction of Ahab, his ship and his crew, all save one, a point of correspondence to which I will return.
The protagonist in Cold Pursuit is Nels Neelson, a taciturn snow plow driver who battles the persistent onslaught of snow in his ski resort town. We meet him, a distant tiny figure driving his plow against an overwhelming canvas of white snow. We see him, a taciturn man, awarded the Citizen of the Year award for his unstinting efforts to keep roads open, reluctantly stumbling through an acceptance speech and learning that his son has died, killed by an overdose of heroine. Nels knows that his son was not a user, and begins a search for those responsible for his son’s death. He becomes a vigilante, working his way up the ladder of informants toward the drug cartel’s sociopathic leader, Viking, leaving dead bodies on every step.
Viking attributes the death of his underlings to a rival cartel of American Indians. He kidnaps and kills the only son of the rival cartel’s chief, White Bull, sending the slain man’s head to his father. Maddened, like Ahab, by his loss, White Bull swears he will be revenged, “…a son for a son…”. He must kill Viking’s only son.
Unaware of the eruption of inter-cartel war and its consequences, Nels decides the best way for him to lure Viking into the open is for him to kidnap Viking’s pre-teen son. He does so, and an unexpected Stockholm syndrome bond develops between the boy and his kidnapper. A gotterdamerung scene explodes with both cartel gangs converging on Nels’ hideout, where Nels has persuaded the boy to stay concealed out of harm’s way. Everyone else, including Viking, is killed except for Nels and White Bull, who leave together in Nels’ huge snow plow before the police arrive. Nels takes his passenger to the head of the towering water fall above the village. When he opens the last barrier to the closed road, he answers White Bull’s query about what he was up to by saying “It’s what I do.” Some may take that as a reference to clearing roads. I take it to be a reference to his new career, killing. He and White Bull, like Ahab, have acquired lives whose only meaning is seeking revenge. With Viking dead, and without their sons, the two have nothing to live for.
When the police arrive at the body strewn scene of the final conflict, they find Viking’s orphaned son. In Moby Dick, after Ahab and his ship have sunk, a companion ship arrives to look for survivors, only to find “another orphan,” the sole survivor who tells the story.