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And now for that other movie about fish people.

I think people will sleep on Cold Skin as it doesn’t seem destined for any kind of theatrical release. I was lucky enough to see it so while I often write reviews for films a lot of people are gonna see anyway, it’s nice to be able to write one for something a bit more obscure. I should really do this more because strong indie movies like Cold Skin are definitely out there and I see my fair share of them.

The trailer is a little unclear about what kind of movie you’re going to get. It’s mostly a horror movie, but a thoughtful one that deftly mixes unusual thematic ambition with a pretty deft fusion of both monster movie and gothic horror tropes. It’s a bit of a siege movie, too, with a lot of running time spent on fending off the assaults of a seemingly endless horde of violent monsters. But there’s more going on than that.

Cold Skin is also colonial narrative, sometimes skewing into allegory but often happy to be fairly straightforward and maybe even on the nose. It’s worth noting that as obvious as the allegory is, Cold Skin is never preachy or aggressive about its themes. It’s more contemplative, taking its time to arrive at the conclusions and ideas that the audience may already be on board with. This doesn’t mean it’s unsatisfying watching the events play out. Far from it. Partly this is because there’s a mostly subtle romantic through-line in the film that makes it a little bit like The Shape of Water. That film had different thematic priorities, but could be seen as an interesting companion piece. They both play around with horror tropes while also presenting narratives that are about how and why humans mistake the other as monstrous. In this case, it’s through the prism of colonialism, played out on a small scale on a deserted volcanic island somewhere in the remote waters of the South.

SPOILERS HO!

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The location is practically a character in the movie.

In 1914, a young man (David Oakes) is deposited on an island to serve as a weather officer, recording the changes in the wind for a whole year. His only companion is a strange lighthouse keeper who calls himself Gruner (Ray Stevenson) and seems about as misanthropic as you could get. Before long, the man encounters strange humanoid creatures and ends up fighting to survive. The movie doesn’t dwell on it, but it’s pretty clear (and important) that it’s the man who draws first blood, stomping on a curious hand and driving a knife into the face of the first creature he sees.

Burnt out of his modest hut by his own attempts to defend it, the man makes a plea with Gruner for help. Because he has supplies, Gruner names him Friend and lets him live in the lighthouse. But they aren’t alone. Gruner keeps one of the fish-like people, which he calls Toads, as a kind of pet. Later, Friend names her Aneris (Aura Garrido) and a kind of tentative friendship forms.

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Gruner’s lighthouse is like a post-apocalyptic fortress.

Friend is a bit more studious and observant than Gruner, and is not so quick to make up his mind about the Toads. However, to earn his keep, he defends the lighthouse and takes part in the slaughter of the creatures, who definitely seem like they really want to kill the humans. Along the way, an uneasy alliance forms between Friend and Gruner, both men needing each other for reasons that they either allow the other to understand or keep back in the darker recesses of their own psyches. Friend is far more interested in why the Toads are so aggressive, positing theories about their anatomy and their psychology even as Gruner dismisses them as beasts that must be exterminated. In that discourse, we find the parallel with colonial philosophies that dehumanized the indigenous populations of new worlds discovered by the European empires. This dehumanization justified atrocities aside from murder and genocide. Also rape, slavery, and exploitation of labour… all of which are explored here.

Gruner holds both Friend and Aneris in a sort of bondage, not dissimilar from the relationship John Goodman’s character has to his pseudo-captives in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Many times you wonder why Friend doesn’t simply kill Gruner or stand up to him more, but the reasons are complex and understated and wrapped up in the colonial themes. Gruner is a megalomaniac, but Friend is just as complicit in the evil they do. If Gruner represents the self-justifying rationale of colonialism, Friend represents the conscience that developed in the wake of its costly exercise. He can see the damage they do, but seems helpless to fully side against his own.

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Aneris’s attitude toward Friend paves the way for a greater understanding.

The book Dante’s Inferno is shown a couple of times in the movie. Again, it’s occasionally on the nose. The book refers to the weird purgatorial nature of their time on the island, with its slow but inexorable descent deeper into a hell that they are making for themselves. Long lulls where the Toads don’t attack seem to drive Gruner more and more insane, while Friend becomes closer to Aneris by sheer virtue of trying to understand both her and the contradiction of Gruner’s hatred for the Toads and sexual use of Aneris.

It’s only after they develop a kind of “final solution” for the Toads that Friend fully realizes what they are. The audience may be a bit ahead, able to understand that the “Toads” are people, with feelings and thoughts. Friend learns that they even have customs and artifacts, that they aren’t a bunch of naked fish-men savagely attacking whatever they find, but rather a traumatized nation of indigenous beings that may be reasoned with.

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Stevenson kills it in this movie.

One of the things I really liked about Cold Skin was that Gruner isn’t just a mustache-twirling villain. Even as Friend pieces together the truth about the Toads, he also finds evidence and insight about Gruner that helps him see the man as little more than a sad, damaged, and lonely misanthrope. He even throws all that in Gruner’s face at one point. And it’s true, though it takes Gruner himself a while to understand it. When it finally becomes a situation where one of them has to die, Gruner is unable to kill another human and instead allows the creatures to devour him, thereby giving them some small piece of justice for all the wrong he’s done them. That leaves Friend, alone on the island with the indigenous Toads.

We don’t really see what those next months are like. The end of the movie skips to the coming of Friend’s replacement. By now, World War 1 has fully broken out and Friend has basically become Gruner. At least a version of him. I do like to think he lived up to his name and became a kind of ambassador to the Toads. I also hope the ending is meant to suggest that he’s not going to let them be discovered by a world that will probably do to them much as Gruner did. The film seems to be about the transition from megalomaniacal conquest and exploitation to a phase of recognizing the humanity or personhood of the Other and trying to find a way to live in peace. In some ways, it feels like we’re well beyond that now. In others, that we’re still struggling with Gruners who can’t, for whatever reason, see the Others as worthy of respect, kindness, or empathy.

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The search for common ground and understanding seems pretty relevant these days.

 

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