The prospect of watching an 86-minute flick set almost entirely at sea might not suit every cinematic palette, especially those who were unable to sit through The Blair Witch Project without a brown paper bag handy. Luckily, the shaky camerawork and found footage amateurishness are absent here as Scott Cohen’s impressive directorial debut, Red Knot, prides itself on a flawless visual presentation.
Newlyweds Peter (Vincent Kartheiser) and Chloe (Olivia Thirlby) are at the centre of this isolated Antarctic expedition tale. Instead of a scantily-clad stint on a sun-kissed beach that most newlyweds choose for their honeymoon, this pair opts for the cold, icy pull of an Arctic journey. At the behest of Peter, Chloe agrees to join her husband on a research vessel out of Argentina, bound for the South Pole. His aspirations as a writer twinned with his love of famous travel writers seemingly take first place over a lusty getaway. Before long, he’s scampering off to ssocializeand wax poetic with the ship’s esteemed clutch of researchers and scholars, and she’s left wondering where her randy husband has gone.
Placing the lead characters in such confined quarters almost certainly raises the stakes for the pair. Right off the bat they’re up against a scenario which would drive anyone to a degree of heightened hysteria. And that’s where Red Knot takes a turn into unchartered waters. The choice to examine the novelty of a new marriage on a boat offers Cohen and his DP Michael Simmonds ample opportunity to demonstrate their isolation. Chloe and Peter wander the ship tightly framed by cabin windows and port holes. They retire to bed only for their intimacy to be restricted by their tiny room.
Early on in the film, Peter asks Chloe “ how does it feel to be married?”, and it’s as if the remainder of the running time answers it through a series of visual-aural matrixes. The couple’s ‘fights’ peter out, as the lull of Garth Stevenson’s gorgeous shoe-gazery score swells, and we cut to a beauteous bird in flight across the ocean. If symbolism in film is dished out heavy-handed, its akin to being told to enjoy pickled eggs even if the very mention of them prompts your gag reflex.
What we’re granted here isn’t a wallop over the head with sharp edits and spot-on musical cues, forcing us to feel a certain way, but instead a chance to linger in those awkward spaces between arguments. Much like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar the sound design ebbs in and out, allowing the music to rise and give our young duo words where they simply cannot find any.
This technique, along with the largely-improvised script, brings out two low-key, nuanced performances from Thirlby and Kartheiser. While it feels like we’re now in an age where all actors below 35 have to shout to stand a chance of being taken seriously, Red Knot’s leads both dwell in the unsaid. Thirlby is given chance to tussle with the grit of adult responsibility, and delivers a believable, moving turn. There’s an air of the silent film era to Kartheiser’s torn writer, who’s at a crossroads in his personal life experience that happens to coincide with his marriage. It’d be easy to cast him as the villain to Thirlby’s “wronged” wife, but that’s not the point. Or rather, it’s not the point worth exploring.
Their tale of a marriage flailing at the first hurdle comments more on today’s idealized notion of romance – promoted by all the mainstream romantic flimflam that populates movie theatres – than who’s right or wrong. The selfishness and naivete of young love is the real meat of the matter that both actors dig their heels into; he’s pissed because she won’t stand by her man, and she’s pissed because he lied to her about a book deal. Their fight escalates and Chloe’s irony-riddled response; “I don’t know what I want, but I just need space!” is the perfect end note.
Whatever it was that prompted Cohen to relocate his twenty-somethings to the middle of the water, it was an inspired decision. Fully harnessing the majestic surroundings of the Arctic, the photography is undeniably breathtaking. Several scenes of penguins, seals and gulls in their natural habitats could have been swiped from a David Attenborough documentary. And, while at times these cutaways to the awe-inspiring topography de-vein some of the tension, beneath the swaying horizons and shifting ice shelves, there’s an updated and realistic commentary on the braggadocio of young love. The decision to uproot the pair from cinema’s obvious environs – hipsterish coffee stands, mawkish quasi-cool dive bars and all the trappings of urban living – makes Red Knot a real breath of fresh air. It’s invigorating to witness these two people trying to escape the folly of youth and become adults without seeing either of them consult a smart phone.
A romantic drama that embraces its exotic – if chilly – locations to draw parallels between the unrelenting nature of travel and a couple’s struggling marriage, Red Knot is that rare beast of an indie. Insightful without being snobby, its heavy emphasis on aesthetic mood and musical overlapping might not assuage the multiplex crowd, but it should find a rapturous reception on the arthouse circuit.
A beautifully-realized visual darling, Red Knot is a gorgeous metaphor for the potential trappings of marriage anchored by solid performances from its two leads.