Benjamin Dickinson’s “First Winter” could have been a long-overdue excoriation of certain latter-day urban hipsters, and how the fatuity of their forced earthiness and anti-establishment attitudes would be brutally exposed should they face actual danger and isolation from the modern world. Using the familiar shaky camerawork and penetrating close-ups that curiously characterize virtually all indie films Dickinson follows a group of blank-faced, numbly hedonistic city dwellers whose sex and drug-laced winter cabin retreat turns into an apocalyptic nightmare after an extended power outage.
Most of the film consists of tracking shots of these pretty nothings in their states of glum disarray, as they alternately sulk or moan about the low temperatures and food supply. What passes for drama in this mostly silent outing is the disappearance of two friends who drove out for gasoline; the sexual conquests of the group’s designated leader (Paul Manza), a laconic yoga instructor with a mile-long beard for a face, who inexplicably drives several ladies wild; and the jealousy felt by his heroin-snorting friend (Matthew Chastain), who rightfully accuses Lanza of using yoga as a ploy to seduce “yoga sluts.”
There is exactly one harrowing scene in “Winter”: the horrible, gasping death of one of Manza’s girlfriends after she eats rancid peaches found in the cellar. There’s plenty of stabs of eroticism–two bathtub romps, a three-way or two–but the characters are so dead-eyed and vacant that we’re hardly turned on, nor do we care when some of the women are heartbroken by this tongue-tied cretin.
“First Winter” could easily have been a hilarious, scabrous satire of the type of young liberals who applaud themselves for being such good hippies, but are actually so privileged that they’d be woefully unprepared for a hippie lifestyle. But in ninety minutes of running time, there are only two limp laughs: when a cabin dweller says, upon being fed a jar of mayonnaise, “It’s like a BLT without the B or L…or the bread,” and the sequence where some of the youths ineptly attempt to fire rifles.
The film certainly achieves its bleakness, the only natural light comes from gleaming snow and ice. But as a cautionary tale, it’s severely limited, and it isn’t long before Dickinson proves to be as self-important as his characters. After watching Lanza’s character exhibit nothing but callowness and cowardice for over an hour, we’re suddenly meant to be riveted when he breaks down in self-loathing, a big mess of sobbing hair. He did lead this pack to the cabin with promises of transcendence and now everyone involved will likely die, but this quick burst of remorse is supposed to be penance enough; Dickinson glorifies him again by having him levitate at film’s end. it’s like “Martha Marcy May Marlene” without suspense; it’s like “Lord of the Flies” without activity.
Playing through November 21 at Videology in Brooklyn (click here for more information)
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