Cold Creek Manor
Director : Mike Figgis
Screenplay : Richard Jefferies
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Dennis Quaid (Cooper Tilson), Sharon Stone (Leah Tilson), Stephen Dorff (Dale Massie), Juliette Lewis (Ruby), Kristen Stewart (Kristen Tilson), Ryan Wilson (Jesse Tilson), Dana Eskelson (Sheriff Ferguson), Christopher Plummer (Mr. Massie), Simon Reynolds (Ray Pinsky), Kathleen Duborg (Ellen Pinski), Paula Brancati (Stephanie Pinski)
The first thing you think when the naïve city family moves into the big, rambling, dilapidated manor in the backwoods of upstate New York and see a bright, shining pane of red stained glass straddling a channel down the middle of the house is, “You know, before the movie is over, someone is going to fall through that window.”
That pretty much sums up Cold Creek Manor, a mildly diverting thriller that disappoints again and again because everything is so depressingly predictable. Richard Jeffries’ screenplay keeps promising that it will reveal something truly shocking—that there are dark, unexpected, and heart-rending secrets to be revealed—yet each detail clicks hollowly into its preordained place without pause, and there is not a genuinely surprising moment to be had. It isn’t even surprising when the characters fall into common-sense-defying behaviors that serve nothing more than the screenplay’s by-the-numbers demands.
Dennis Quaid and Sharon Stone star as Cooper and Leah Tilson. When the film opens, they are living in the bustling center of New York City, where Leah is a high-level executive on the brink of making vice-president and Cooper is dedicated documentary filmmaker who does it for love of the work, not money. They have two children, a preteen girl, Kristen (Kristen Stewart), and an elementary-aged son, Jesse (Ryan Wilson). When Jesse is almost run over by an irate driver, Cooper and Leah decide that the city is too much of a strain on their family.
So, they move to upstate New York and buy the eponymous manor, which is still filled with the dusty furniture and stacks of private memorabilia from the Massie family, who had lived there for generations, but recently lost it to bankruptcy. The Tilson family gets to work restoring the house, while Cooper busies himself by going through the Massie family archives so that he can make a documentary about them.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t sit well with Dale Massie (Stephen Dorff), the scruffy young man who had been living in the family house before he was sent to prison for three years for “accidentally” killing someone. Dale shows up at the house one day and convinces Cooper and Leah to let him to work as a handyman and help them restore the house, which Cooper soon begins to suspect was a mistake. “He wants us out of his house,” he tells Leah, after a frightening incident in which four poisonous snakes are found in various parts of the house. Leah, as these kinds of screenplays dictate, doesn’t believe Cooper and is actually mad when he fires Dale. That turns out to be the biggest mistake of all, as Dale, furious at having been fired from restoring his ancestral home by some haughty-taughty city slicker, sets his sights on punishing Cooper and driving the whole family away.
It’s a pretty thin storyline, and Jeffries tried to punch it up by inserting a few meandering subplots, including one about potential marital infidelity. I suppose he was trying to extend the tensions afflicting the Tilsons, but it feels misplaced and is never fully dealt with. More noticeable are the enormous gaps in logic that riddle the screenplay. For example, in one scene late at night, Dale is chasing Cooper in his jacked-up truck, which causes Cooper to accidentally hit a deer. The next morning, the Tilsons’ beloved horse is found dead in the swimming pool, and because there is evidence that Cooper hit an animal with his car, everyone (particularly his daughter) thinks he hit the horse and killed it. Since the horse lives in a stable, it seems highly unlikely that Cooper could have hit him with his car and even more unlikely that the horse would somehow wind up in the pool since it’s on the backside of the house, whereas the driveway is in the front.
On the surface, Cold Creek Manor is a family thriller, much like Martin Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear (1991), but what it’s really about is the age-old conflict between city folks and rural folks. Cold Creek Manor is riddled through and through with the standard horror-movie convention that city slickers shouldn’t move out to the country for a respite because they can never—ever—blend in with the locals. Simply put: They don’t belong. This is made particularly clear when everybody at the local diner eyes the Tilsons with suspicion, particularly the trampy barmaid Ruby (Juliette Lewis), who is also Dale’s girlfriend. When Dale arrives in the diner and begins spouting off about what a horrible person Cooper is, everyone in the diner murmurs in agreement, as if they are all in league with one another.
The character of Dale Massie is instructive of this impenetrable city/rural divide because he embodies everything that “good” city-dwelling citizens fear about “bad” rural-dwelling people: He has longish, dirty hair that’s always hidden beneath a grungy baseball cap, he never shaves, he eats loudly and burps at the dinner table, and he works outside in the mud without a shirt and doesn’t mind handling snakes (hint, hint—who do you suppose put those poisonous snakes in the house?). Dale is the quintessential redneck villain because his villainy has less to do with his actions and more to do with his place in life. He is even the product of an abusive, bitter, cruel father (Christopher Plummer), who is currently wasting away in a nursing home. Thus, the movie sets up its easy dichotomy, associating the Tilsons with good ol’ fashioned family togetherness (despite a few wrinkles in Cooper and Leah’s relationship) and the Massies with familial dysfunction: abuse, neglect, and maybe even murder.
Cold Creek Manor was directed by Mike Figgis, who has swung wildly for more than 15 years between standard Hollywood fare (Internal Affairs, Mr. Jones) and experimental independent films (Timecode, Hotel). Here he is in full Hollywood mode, stylishly orchestrating the by-the-numbers plotting, trying to convince us there’s more there than there really is. Cold Creek Manor certainly looks good, but even though Figgis puts together some nice compositions and camera angles, he can never overcome the yawn-inducing and often illogical antics of the storyline.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick