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'Centigrade' Review: Any traveler's nightmare comes true

Brendan Walsh's 'Centigrade' takes a true story about an unthinkable tourist's predicament and locks us inside a dramatic character study.

The trapped couple in 'Centigrade' brainstorms a plan.
(Image: © IFC Midnight)

Our Verdict

'Centigrade' struggles to convey the sensations of claustrophobia and stir-craziness that are so obviously apparent in the on-screen events.

For

  • ❄️ Genesis Rodriguez.
  • ❄️ Snowblind isolation.

Against

  • ❄️ Lacking atmosphere.
  • ❄️ Dull does not equate to dreary.

Oddly (or maybe not if you follow my work), I’ve seen more unbelievable single-location thriller setups than two humans trapped in their SUV off a Norwegian roadway under accumulated snow. One of the characters comments on how ridiculous it is to imagine someone trapped in their washroom, yet I’ve watched not one, but two isolation horror flicks that take place in a cramped bathroom stall (The Boat, Stalled). I’ve even seen a car-centric lockbox narrative, as well (4x4). I say all this because while Brendan Walsh’s Centigrade seems like a harrowingly unique snowed-in survival story, cracking snide remarks about other films that exist, the ordeal runs tonally flat and coldly familiar despite the dire consequences.

Genesis Rodriguez stars as Naomi, and Vincent Piazza as Matt, a couple who’ve awoken in their automobile to find every exit sealed and frozen shut. Naomi’s latest book tour has them traversing Norway, a continent known for its harsh wintery conditions. One particularly hazardous storm forces Naomi and Matt to pull over halfway between stops, where they grab some shuteye, but prolonged slumber allows for snowfall to bury their car off the side of the road. With enough rations for twelve days, and escape almost impossible, their patience will be tested as paranoia leads to physical and emotional pain, especially for Naomi, who’s also in the late stages of her pregnancy.

In terms of delivery, Centigrade takes the “bleak” and “destitute” route to unthinkable circumstances. Walsh and co-writer Daley Nixon’s screenplay recalls actual events as per the film's opening informational card. They intend to provoke natural tension between weary lovers who are battling their separate demons, now trapped within an immovable icebox. The film’s cinematography retains this gloomy color palette of mostly darkened greyish hues and colorless frames as a means of conveying little vibrance. Walsh wants you to experience hopelessness, but all his methods blend in a way that suppresses urgency and dread by sucking the life from countless scenes.

Centigrade is staged around sleepless nights and silent, searing gazes. The horrors endured are dramatic, and human, as we recognize two partners are long overdue for expressive conversations. What their predicament does is force outbursts that should happen under less stressful circumstances, especially for pregnant Naomi, but as a result of fatigue, dialogue and mini-fights become an overdramatic game of “what else could go wrong.” The elements themselves show their hand at the onset: it’s cold, there’s lots of snow, now find a way out. Any surprises in store are birthed from a psychologically tormented recess, causing characters to fly off the handle when, let’s say, Naomi accidentally leaves the water bottle cap loose, and Matt unknowingly spills it in his sleep.

Maybe this slow-burning, argument-heavy execution will be what intrigues some viewers. It’s undoubtedly relatable, as Matt - while shivering and defeated - scratches another tally into their dashboard with his corkscrew. There’s no running from their thoughts or themselves, which draws out lies and secrets that cause a back-and-forth of verbal lashings. 

For me, it just runs thin as a soapy horror story where the “hits” never stop coming in the form of dramatic admissions followed by more silent treatments and wriggling around. Given such little environmental interaction, there needs to be more emphasis put on the internal dynamics that don’t exist. Everything feels so muted. A looming distraction made worse by the initial revelation that events are based on reality and will probably end as most assume.

That’s not to diminish Rodriguez and Piazza’s performances, the only actors on-screen. Two humans shoved into a claustrophobic container, under 1Km of snow, fifty miles from civilization. Rodriguez must convey the hormonal imbalance of being what appears to be eight-plus months into her pregnancy. At the same time, Piazza wrestles with his inability to be the ultimate protector and provider. Between hypothermic reactions, fierce maternal instincts, and those dagger-deadly eyes of discomfort, Rodriguez is the standout as she battles sanity and someone who should be her rock. 

Clashes are well-acted, but again, defined by quietness and sobering disconnection to the point of no return. Even during floor-punching tantrums and direct threats to one another, followed by even more monotony because how are you supposed to pass (at least) fifteen days inside a vehicle? Peeing into a blanket (also, um, the mystery of #2)? Then, by golly, that third-act twist occurs, and the accompanying soundtrack becomes a repetition of...well, one specific noise? Intended effects do not project as hoped, in this critic’s case.

Don’t get me wrong; Centigrade is not a true-life scenario I’d like to recreate. Brendan Walsh picks rightfully drastic material to translate into lockdown cinema, utilizing these whiteout Fargo-inspired environment shots that reveal nothing but blankets of snow as far as the eye can see. Isolation, frustration, and fear are natural ingredients in any horror cocktail, but this chilly concoction tastes watered down. Oversaturated by the aggressively dramatic beats that keep piling up as the character study portion of this one-set nightmare becomes a numbing monotone note. Intensity should grasp us in its icy clutches, yet we slip right through as the frigid hands begin to melt before “the squeeze” ever has a chance to make us feel anything more than impatient discomfort.