'Red Knot': SIFF Review

Courtesy of SIFF
An attention-worthy directing debut for art photographer Scott Cohen.

Olivia Thirlby and Vincent Kartheiser play a troubled couple honeymooning at sea.

SEATTLE – A quiet stunner of a drama examining a marriage at risk of dying before it has begun, Scott Cohen's Red Knot sets its chilly interpersonal dynamics against the vastness of a dramatically photographed Antarctic landscape. Representing a feather in the cap of SIFF, which is premiering a film that might've scored a berth at a higher-profile fest on the basis of its cast alone, the Olivia Thirlby- and Vincent Kartheiser-starring picture took home the Fipresci Grand Jury prize here and has ample appeal for serious-minded moviegoers. All but demanding big-screen viewing, the film may be too finely distilled for multiplexes but deserves to thrive at the art house.

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Kartheiser plays Peter, a writer obsessed with polar expeditions who is given the chance to join an Antarctic sea voyage and takes new wife, Chloe (Thirlby), along. Scenes onboard the ship, where we occasionally spot passengers like author Cormac McCarthy, hint at the interdisciplinary nature of the real voyage during which the film was shot—one imagines the kind of wide-ranging group of thinkers found in Daniel Dencik's recent doc Expedition to the End of the World. But for this story's purposes, Peter's colleagues are exclusively those with relevant expertise: marine biologists, explorers, and the like—all of whom capture his attention to such a degree that his bride feels ignored.

Jealousy for Peter's time may be the backdrop for tension that grows between the two, but it's only part of the reason Chloe decides, mid-voyage, to move out of the couple's cabin and finish the trip as if their marriage has already ended. Cohen makes smart use of portholes, narrow doorways and tight passages to illustrate the frustrations of being emotionally cut off from someone who remains so close physically—and also to signal Chloe's growing connection with the ship's soulfully taciturn captain. (Billy Campbell is perfect for the part even before one learns the actor has spent much of the last 14 years working on crews of tall ships.)

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In showing the infrequent confrontations between the estranged husband and wife, the film is disinterested in their specifics: We hear a few sentences, then the voices drop away as we watch their distressed faces. The choice universalizes their conflict to some extent, though it's always clear that this is a case of a man being too wrapped up in his own concerns to really engage with another person. Kartheiser makes this self-involved character more sympathetic and gently human than the one that made him famous on Mad Men; Thirlby, who has made the most of many small roles in her short career, has a light touch here that serves her character well.

Given Cohen's background in photography, it's unsurprising that he and DP Michael Simmonds make the most of glaciers and seascapes whose grandeur dwarfs the little humans traversing them. Occasional scenes of passengers on shore with penguins and seals flesh out the travelogue, but everything from Garth Stevenson's double bass-driven score to editor Dominic LaPerriere's lulling pace emphasizes the emotional nature of this quest over its ample tourist attractions.

Production company: Thunder Perfect Mind

Cast: Olivia Thirlby, Vincent Kartheiser, Billy Campbell, Lisa Harrow, Roger Payne, Matt Drennan

Director-Screenwriter-Producer: Scott Cohen

Director of photography: Michael Simmonds

Costume designer: Judy Shrewsbury

Editor: Dominic LaPerreire

Music: Garth Stevenson

No rating, 79 minutes