The Winter Lake is an intriguing but ultimately ineffective mystery-drama, that descends too quickly into a conventional thriller.
“I know I’m a terrible mother, but I’m not a terrible person,” says Elaine, as she struggles to deal with her unpredictable son. Director Phil Sheerin uses this tension to paint an ice-cold portrait of family ties against a bleak rural landscape in The Winter Lake. The film follows Tom (Anson Boon) and mother, Elaine (Charlie Murphy), who have recently moved back to Ireland. The reason for the return is at first ambiguous, but it is a simmering source of unspoken tension.
When Tom and Elaine meet neighbours Holly (Emma Mackey) and Ward (Michael McElhatton), they’re sucked into a dark mystery. While The Winter Lake never lives up to its full potential, it is consistently bleak from start to finish.
The film’s emotional centre is reminiscent of Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (2014). Elaine is unable to control her son, despite her love for him. This is a fascinating subject, and Sheerin’s perspective on this issue is intriguing. He juxtaposes the mother-son dynamic against the father-daughter dynamic of Holly and Ward, which casts their relationship in a new light. Throughout, there is a strong imbalance between every character in the film, which justifies their inclusion.
The slow reveal of information constantly challenges our assumptions about the group. The four central performances are relatively effective and convey a sense of complexity (particularly Emma Mackey as Holly). Unfortunately, The Winter Lake does not succeed with the same intricacy as Mommy. The ambiguity fades away and we’re left with an empty climax.
Visually, the film is often stunning with striking cinematography. The cold landscapes convey a real sense of emptiness and help to emphasise the film’s tone. The interiors of the house are equally beautiful and empty. The pale blue walls merge with the sky, which reinforces the vulnerability of the character, as they are constantly exposed. Moreover, the film utilizes this strength to the fullest. The opening scene is devoid of conversation and unnecessary explanation. One of Tom’s defining traits is his silence, which works perfectly against the backdrop of loneliness.
Unfortunately, other technical aspects of the film are not to the same standard. The sound is often distracting and the score can be overbearing. Most noticeably, the shot-to-shot editing is jumpy throughout. This makes it difficult to gain any strong sense of geography around the lake which sits between the two houses. It’s clear that certain shots were chosen for their aesthetic quality, rather than their efficiency. This works with the emotional drama of the first act, yet becomes hindersome in the tenser moments of the conclusion.
This pattern carries through to other aspects of the film and the final act leaves much to be desired. Most significantly, the screenplay deteriorates as the story draws on. Although it is never particularly outstanding, the flaws are at first lost in the intrigue of the situation. However, in the second half, it grows increasingly clunky.
The film’s biggest weakness is an inability to reconcile the ‘drama’ of the first act with the ‘thriller’ of the third. By opening in such ambiguous moral territory, the descent into action feels unearned. The minimization of nuanced issues into ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ does not work when the questions of mother and son are so complicated. The final conclusion hardly addresses any of the questions the film raises.
The Winter Lake is certainly a cold and empty film. In some ways, that is a success, as it clearly attempting to convey ‘coldness’ and ‘emptiness’. However, given the weight of later revelations in the narrative, it is hard to overlook the film’s refusal to confront any issues it raises. Despite an effective premise, cast and visual landscape, it is an unrewarding experience. Ultimately, The Winter Lake seems fundamentally unable to deal with the emotional gravity of its own story.
Words by Lucy Palmer
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