In 2002, Matthew and Naomi, the latter eight months pregnant at the time, traveled to Norway for Naomi’s book tour. They were driving overnight to a signing in a remote area of the mountains when a gnarly winter storm hit and made continuing on not only unsafe, but almost impossible. They pulled over and decided to sleep in the car until it was clear to hit the road again.
The new movie Centigrade, available on VOD and in drive-in theaters this Friday, begins when the young American couple wakes up, horrified to realize that their car has been completely snowed in by the storm. They are buried and trapped in a frozen prison, with only a few days of food and a Nokia phone with no signal and a dying battery as lifelines.
Close quarters can seem emotionally magnetized to draw out contentious relationship dynamics, as many couples have learned in recent months. Matthew and Naomi cycle through blame, resentment, fear, support, and desperation as days turn into weeks and their survivalist efforts become increasingly fraught. It’s a claustrophobic and excruciating journey to watch, which, presumably, is the point.
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A title card at the top of the film alerts you to the fact that it is based on a true story. Centigrade director Brendan Walsh, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Daley Nixon, later clarified that it was actually inspired by several similar tales of real-life people who were trapped in cars that were buried by snow.
“We culled together about 10 different stories all from very average people trying to figure their way through this event,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “It truly is a moment that can happen to anyone in the wrong climate.”
Unlike so many other survivalist adventures on film, there aren’t extreme circumstances at play here. No one crash landed a private propeller plane on the side of a mountain. An extreme adventurer didn’t get lost on a hike. Tom Hanks is not a castaway. It’s the everyday feasibility of the catastrophe that’s so upsetting. Walsh’s comments about how common this event actually is sent this writer down a traumatizing rabbit hole.
In 2011, a couple and their 5-year-old daughter were “found clinging to each other” in their 2003 GMC Yukon that got stuck under 4 feet of snow in a blizzard in New Mexico for two days.
A 45-year-old man survived two months in his snow-covered car in northern Sweden in 2012, subsisting in the -22F degree on melted snow to drink and a sleeping bag for warmth.
Even now with cellphone and location tracking services more sophisticated and reliable, this can still happen. Married couple Jimmy and Betty Anderson spent 20 hours trapped in a 12-foot snowdrift in New Mexico in 2015, albeit while in constant contact with emergency workers who themselves were foiled by the weather in an attempt to rescue them.
Just this past winter, a 68-year-old woman was found alive in her car under a mound of snow in the mountains north of Sacramento after a weeklong search.
The dark truth, and one that Centigrade doesn’t shy away from, is that these stories are not always triumphant.
Take as a prime example the heartbreaking case of Nada Jean Chaney. In 1991, the 68-year-old woman became snowbound with her 75-year-old husband Kenneth in their car for more than two weeks in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Their bodies were found along with letters they had written to their children, which included accounts of how they passed their days stuck in the car, poems, memories, and funeral instructions. One from Nada Jean written after 18 days said, “Your father passed away. It was very peaceful. His last words were, ‘Thank the Lord.’” She wrote that she expected to join him soon.
What Centigrade gets at, and mines into somewhat of a thriller, is an idea that headlines about incidents like these don’t convey: What is it actually like on a minute-to-minute basis to spend that much time confined together in a car? You’re freezing. You don’t know when or if you will get help. You don’t know how long to ration your food or water, the best way to handle bathroom use, or, and this is what’s specifically interesting about Centigrade, how your partner isn’t going to react to the emergency.
“Matthew and Naomi cycle through blame, resentment, fear, support, and desperation as days turn into weeks and their survivalist efforts become increasingly fraught.”
The film stars Genesis Rodriguez and Vincent Piazza as Naomi and Matt. In an attempt to create some verisimilitude to the conditions their characters would face, shooting took place inside of a working ice cream freezer, in which the temperature hovered near 20 degrees.
The actors also undertook extreme diets, shooting only three or four days a week across the 24-day shoot so that their weight loss could match the characters’ on-screen starvation. Ultimately, they lost around 20 pounds each.
There’s a certain timeliness to Centigrade being released in the midst of the pandemic-induced lockdown of the past months. You think your quarantine situation is bad?
It’s impossible to watch anything these days without applying to it the lens of our unprecedented times. What would ordinarily have been an intense survivalist thriller becomes more poignant and recognizable as a relationship drama as more people become familiar with the emotional combustion of being confined to close quarters with another person and their existential dread.
The film industry conversation has been dominated in recent weeks by the question of safety as movie theaters reopen. Debate surrounding Tenet, The New Mutants, and Unhinged has centered on the responsibility of inviting audiences back into cinemas as much as it has on the films’ quality.
A movie like Centigrade would be, in the most normal of times, a small limited release, an arthouse discovery. When all of this is over, who knows what the future holds for those small indie cinemas—and in turn, for the films like this that would play there. But amid the tension over the pandemic and movie theaters’ reopening, it’s comforting that, even if a stressful watch, this film is content with traumatizing you from the safety of your own home.