Patricia Clarkson is one of those indispensable character actors that is too rarely delegated to leading lady status. However, she makes the most of a meandering script in a new film she headlines, October Gale, which also reunites her with Cairo Time director Ruba Nadda.
The actress plays Helen Matthews, a recently widowed woman in her fifties returning to the Ontario cottage she used to enjoy with her husband, James (played in flashback by Callum Keith Rennie). It’s hard for Helen to let go, especially when remnants of James are everywhere: in the picture frames on the wall, in the deck of cards she shuffles tenderly, in the year-old sports section of the newspaper left by the fireplace.
Helen could use something to pre-occupy her as she lounges around the cabin, tenderly coveting the things her husband used to own, and that distraction soon comes in the form of Will Grant (Scott Speedman), a mysterious man that runs into the cottage in the middle of the night with a bullet lodged in his shoulder. Will is fresh out of prison for killing a man, and the victim’s father, Tom (Tim Roth), is not too far behind him.
October Gale begins as a character study about loss, with a solitude and sunny flashbacks reminiscent of a romance novel. As most movie flashbacks go, there is a lot of soft focus and bright light washing over Helen and James in these fleeting mementoes. Unfortunately, Nadda keeps shifting the mood as the story progresses, nudging toward thriller territory as the thunder cracks, the sky fogs up and Will insists that his pursuer is coming closer.
Much of the middle third of October Gale consists of Helen and Will, armed in the cabin, casting glances out the window (and sometimes at each other) in case somebody shows up to investigate the ex-convict’s whereabouts. (Since this is a film set in the solitary woods, Nadda ensures that Helen’s cell phone gets no reception and her husband’s boat that connects her to the mainland is in the shop for repairs.)
The tedium eventually leads to a cat-and-mouse chase through the woods near the film’s climax. Nadda fails to create any tension though; instead of keeping the camera on Helen as we hear footsteps approaching, the director cuts to the source creeping up on her. If anything indicates the film is a thriller, it’s Mischa Chillak’s spare score that sometimes crescendos into a growl as Tom approaches the cottage. When Roth’s murderous villain begins interacting with the characters, his comments lean the drama into some darkly comic territory. His character’s wry attitude seems to have walked onto the set from a different movie, as if Ralph Fiennes’ wily hitman from In Bruges jumped into a Lifetime drama. The antagonist turns out to be more of a gentleman than a scoundrel, although his backstory and relation to Will is predictable.
As the drama flits uneasily between genres, the one constant of sure greatness is Clarkson, deeply moving as a woman trying to move on from a great loss. She is guarded toward her new visitor, straining not to meet his eyes, yet when her gaze dashes to a reminder of her old life, we recognize her anguish. Clarkson’s affecting portrayal helps to save some groaners of dialogue. “We spent our entire lives together and he died alone,” she tells Will, in a moment that could have caused eye-rolling if the actor playing Helen had emoted to much. Instead, Clarkson elevates the role through her restraint and the glimmers of grief she projects without ever coming off as too overwrought.
Speedman, meanwhile, gets too little to do as Will, likely because Nadda insists on creating a bond between his rogue ex-convict and Helen that is more than friendly. He is too much of a love interest and not compelling or credible enough to register as a person.
So much of October Gale takes place within the confines of the cottage that it is a relief when Nadda brings us onto the lake, as Helen motors around by herself. Director of Photography Jeremy Benning makes cloudy Georgian Bay both dreary and picturesque. Regardless, there is an obvious continuity error in a sequence that inter-cuts between Helen boating on the lake and Will in her living room: there is a treacherous storm on the water, yet sunlight shines through the windows back at the cottage.
With a leisurely pace and few moments that shock or surprise, October Gale feels much longer than its 90 minutes. To keep viewers occupied, writer/director Nadda allows for hints of sexual tension between Helen and Will, and inserts a few too many flashback sequences. For a thriller with so few locations and characters, though, it is a shame that the film feels tepid instead of claustrophobic or sexually charged.
Patricia Clarkson does all she can to anchor October Gale, but the story drifts between tones and ultimately sinks due to a lack of suspense and surprise.