Loathe as I am to be glib about a director like Arthur Penn, Dead of Winter comes off like a TNT Original Movie. Penn proves himself–with the exception of maybe one scene and even then it’s awkward because it’s Arthur Penn using Steadicam–almost completely inept at directing a thriller. The script’s hardly anything special and maybe a good deal of the problems come from it, but Penn fails to instill any foreboding into the film. There’s some goofy stuff in the last act (another reason it reminds me of a TV movie is how every single development in the climax is utterly predictable–like a stage play with spotlights on important objects or ideas), but the goofy stuff only hurts it a little; insignificant damage.
The opening scene is bad, poorly handled because of details the viewer isn’t supposed to know yet, but Dead of Winter recovers immediately following. Mary Steenburgen and William Russ make a good couple–though their marital status comes as a bit of a surprise later on–and they help the film find its feet. The scenes with Steenburgen as the working actress (soaps and commercials) are good. So good, I didn’t even notice Canada was standing in for New York (which might be Penn’s greatest achievement with this one). Even Roddy McDowell is good at the beginning. Later–everything with Dead of Winter is later, because of how poorly the script handles the big reveal–the script cuts McDowell’s character loose and he gets progressively hammier.
As the plot developed, I got the feeling Penn was going for a modified haunted house thriller. He doesn’t. He plays the entire thing straight and that approach is why it’s a TV movie. It’s not even a glorified TV movie, given the cast. As good as Jan Rubes is in the film as the villain, his best moments are probably off-screen; the script hints at his deviousness, but never shows it.
I really do want to give away the film’s final plunge into risibility, but it is a surprise and Dead of Winter is–kind of–worth seeing. Watching Penn fail is painful, but it’s an interesting flop.
But the biggest problem with the film is the script and its handling of Steenburgen’s character. The viewer is supposed to believe Mary Steenburgen is a complete fool. Not just a complete fool, but a complete fool of a New Yorker who somehow managed not to end up dead in a trash can during her time there. Steenburgen’s character’s so stupid, she’d have trouble opening doors. But, only when it comes to her dupability. The rest of the time it’s Mary Steenburgen and she’s with it.
The character’s guilelessness throughout the film makes the third act impossible to believe, when Dead of Winter gets around to having that third act all thrillers need to have.
It was clear from the start there was something off with the film, but it maintained a decent mediocrity–combined with Penn’s bewildering direction–until the last twenty-five minutes or so. Then it just got worse and worse.
Directed by Arthur Penn; written by Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone; director of photography, Jan Weincke; edited by Rick Shaine; music by Richard Einhorn; production designer, Bill Brodie; produced by John Bloomgarden and Shmuger; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Mary Steenburgen (Katie McGovern), Roddy McDowall (Mr. Murray), Jan Rubes (Dr. Joseph Lewis), William Russ (Rob Sweeney), Ken Pogue (Officer Mullavy), Wayne Robson (Officer Huntley) and Mark Malone (Roland McGovern).