The Oxbow Cure – Vancouver International Film Festival

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The Oxbow Cure (2013), a low-budget independent feature funded by Telefilm Canada, a Toronto Arts Council grant, and Kickstarter, is nothing if not a triumph of making the best of scarce resources. Crafting a surreal psychodrama out of the performance of one actor (Claudia Dey) and the inherent mythic resonance of its location in a quiet corner of the wintry Canadian wilderness, directors Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas manage to do quite a lot with very little. Whether their lo-fi artistry necessarily amounts to anything more than an overlong metaphor for accepting the inevitability of decay is up to debate.

Dey gives a fine performance as spondylosis-afflicted Lena, a woman grieving both her own deteriorating body and her father’s cancer by retreating into the silence of a cabin in the woods of Ontario. But she finds that solitude doesn’t necessarily yield silence, bringing out instead the white noise of her fears and pain. This psychological white noise is literalized by the directors in expertly deployed sound design and some lovely cinematography, enveloping Lena and the viewer in a dialogue-less trance created by visions accompanied by the sounds of a house in winter, ranging from comforting to ominous, like the ebb and flow of Lena’s fear; the eerie hiss of analog snow on the antique television in her cabin, the ticking of heaters, the hallucinatory glimmer of phantoms all around the titular frozen lake and its ring of trees.

But the film is so without incident that the momentary audiovisual frisson of moments like an emotionally-charged glimpse of what seems to be a will o’ the wisp in the dark beyond the cabin don’t add up to more than the sum of the film’s parts. Dey carries the film admirably by the merit of her performance, but she needs more to do, more to react to than cold beauty and the occasional strange sight or sound. The film’s forays into the territory of dream and dread are too frustratingly tentative for a film about the fear of mortality. Lena’s hesitant game of hide-and-seek with a hunched spectre that is a walking symbol for death and degeneration just doesn’t attain enough tension to fuel the film’s inner narrative. Despite all attempts at making the tone resemble horror, it falls into a complacency encouraged by the hypnotic pace. None of it is boring, but it’s not quite enough either.

The Oxbow Cure is a sometimes striking piece of film-making, but like the frost and ice that surrounds its protagonist, its beauty is fleeting and rather transparent. I’m interested, though, to see what Lewis and Thomas could do with somewhat more of a budget, or a more substantial concept and screenplay. Whatever the film’s flaws, it’s certainly encouraging to see emerging Canadian filmmakers getting financial support for idiosyncratic projects.