This may come as a shock to you, but “background director” is not a real job. The same way a sawed-off rifle is not a real gun. And the only reason these two things exists is because Cold Pursuit is not a real movie.
Traditionally, the third assistant director is the one who manages the background talent on set (Darcie Parkhurst, in this case). There are assistant art directors and set designers to look after all the little background props. So I’m left to wonder—what on earth you were actually directing in the background?
There’s only one thing I can think of. You must have directed all the vital scenes that explain the characters’ background, their motivations, their inner lives, all of which obviously got cut out of the film and resulted in this laughable disaster of a thriller.
I was initially intrigued by Cold Pursuit’s total lack of character development. Like it was purposefully fast-forwarding through basic story beats to get to the good stuff. After all, January/February is Liam Neeson Revenge Season (The Commuter, Non-Stop, Taken 3, Run All Night, The Grey, etc.), a very specific genre which has, in recent years, has gone from universally mocked to universally anticipated. Believe it or not, I am one of those anticipators. I dig these movies—apparently a lot more than the filmmakers you worked with. They either hate thrillers or have no clue what makes them work—especially what constitutes a smart way to subvert the genre.
I could tell early on that there were a lot of cheats happening. Canada was standing in for Colorado (nothing new there), and Tom Bateman, an actor I’ve never seen before, was doing the single worst American accent I’ve ever heard. Enough things were off that I initially assumed the (foreground) director wasn’t a native English speaker, which I later discovered is true (Hans Petter Moland’s IMDB page calls him “the Ridley Scott of Norway”). But this was no Norwegian spaghetti Western. As the film went on, I wondered if the director spoke any human language at all. What else could account for the completely atonal, sociopathic storytelling? The whole thing is almost so bad it’s good, like Tommy Wiseau used a pseudonym and got a real budget.
I mean, I get it. Shooting outside during an Alberta winter is hard. Easier to recycle the same transition shot of driving down a highway, or the same shot of disposing bodies over a freezing waterfall rather than do new camera set-ups and alternative angles. But the real attempts at comedy are laughable for all the wrong reasons. Like the first time Liam Neeson identifies his dead son at the morgue; the coroner takes a full 10-15 seconds raising the already uncovered body up inch by inch, with jerky mechanical movements. An attempt at humour? I guess. But the actors forget they are supposed to actually react to seeing their dead son. Laura Dern, playing the mom, is stone-faced the whole time and, after about three lines of dialogue, disappears from the movie completely (much to the benefit of her career).
In fact, Dern’s early exit is perhaps the best metaphor for the film as a whole. She leaves an envelope on the bed with a completely blank note inside. In another film, this could have been the ultimate Fuck You between two complex characters with a rich history of failing to communicate with one another. But in this film it only summarizes the filmmakers’ efforts. We got Liam Neeson, we got revenge—who gives a shit about the rest?
Now after doing research, I see that Cold Pursuit is actually a remake of the director’s own Norwegian film starring Stellan Skarsgård. Which make sense. I could completely sense the film being out of place. But let me give you a little “background” on directors remaking their own films in another language. It never works. From Michael Haneke to Canada’s own Ken Scott. Something is always lost in translation.
And that’s the problem with casting someone like Neeson. He brings a certain brand and a certain energy that needs to be expertly undermined in order to be effective as satire (think Jason Statham in Spy). With another lead actor (say, fellow Norwegian Aksel Hennie), Cold Pursuit might have achieved a sort of off-kilter quirky psychotic charm. But, here, the push-pull between Neeson’s earnestness and the film’s refusal to play it straight ends up being unsatisfactory all around—in the foreground and background alike.