based on actual events, bellflower, boot camp, chris petrovski, coldwater, cool hand luke, james c. burns, jesus, juvenile detention facilities, lord of the flies, melrose place, octavius johnson, oscilloscope, p.j. boudousque, ryan gosling, sandlot, squints, stephanie simbari, thomas calabro, unregulated, vincent grashaw
Coldwater is the debut film written and directed by Vincent Grashaw, who acted in, produced, edited and operated cameras for Oscilloscope’s 2011 apocalyptic Bellflower. Coldwater swims in the same pool as Bellflower, rife with similar tones and structure, although isn’t quite as successful as its predecessor.
Based on stories about the sometimes corrupt and often unregulated private juvenile detention business, Coldwater tells the story of Brad Lunders (P.J. Boudousqué), a teen of an indeterminate age (we assume he’s out of high school) who works as a mechanic, but whose main source of income is selling various types of drugs. He lives at home with his mother and his new stepfather having a tenuous relationship at best with both. Brad is a screw up. Everyone knows it. Even his girlfriend, Erin (Stephanie Simbari) knows this. She tries to reel him in from his drug exploits when she sees him and his friend Gabriel (Chris Petrovski) exchange a large quantity of money. But he doesn’t heed her warning. When a fight breaks out between Brad and two men he had been doing business with (one of whom was Squints from The Sandlot) at Erin’s house, a gun is pulled…and we cut to Brad in a police car, a tragedy having occurred. A cut to what we think is the next morning, shows two dark-uniformed men grabbing Brad, zip-tying his hands behind his back, and escorting him to and throwing him into a van, all while his mother and stepfather watch, obviously complicit in his removal.
Brad is taken, along with Jonas (Octavius Johnson) to Coldwater, a military-style boot camp for incorrigible youths, run by the retired Marine Corps Col. Frank Reichardt (veteran soap opera actor James C. Burns). Reichardt plays it up like he is a tough, but fair, man. And if you play by his rules, show improvement and accept the adjustments he and his staff “offer”, then all who are there will be free to go. But as the film trundles along, we can see he is anything but fair. Allowing his staff to use brutal force when necessary and neglecting problems in need of help, Coldwater resembles hell more and more to the boys trapped there. If they try to escape, they are mercilessly punished, all in the game of breaking their spirits one by one.
At first, Brad doesn’t play their game, but soon enough he learns. After helping Jonas when he is injured by one of the guards, they are both punished, handcuffed and hung by their wrists from the ceiling of a hotbox, deprived of food, water and sleep. When the injury that Jonas incurred from the guard initially gets so bad he is taken away in an ambulance (we later find out that his leg had to be amputated), Brad decides he has to get out. When he breaks out he is taken in by a family who he tells the stories of the abuse that he and the others incur at Coldwater. Unable to tell whether he’s lying, the man calls the sheriff who has no choice but to take Brad back to camp since he has no proof of what he has told. Note this moment, as it comes back into play later in the film. So after the sheriff leaves, Brad is dealt his punishment for fleeing in the form of a public beating to warn the others as to what will happen if they do the same.
Flash forward two years (TWO YEARS!!!) – Brad is still at Coldwater as are the bulk of the others who were there before. However, Brad is now barracks commandant, in the pocket of the Colonel and the other staff. He manages the other prisoners as told and is an exemplary inmate. But all is not as it seems as Brad plays his own slow burn game of cat and mouse with the Colonel, the staff and the other inmates. And all of that changes when Gabriel, his old buddy, find himself interned in the camp as well. To continue with the plot lines would be to spoil the film. I’d like to leave something for you to experience should you choose to watch this one.
Religious overtones surround Brad throughout the film – he wears his father’s cross around his neck, but gives it to Gabriel the night before he is taken to Coldwater, effectively losing his religion (and Heavenly protection) only to gain it back at the end of the film when he has recovered his faith, so to speak. One can’t help but to see the similarities between the way he and Jonas were hung in the hotbox and the way Christ is depicted hanging from the cross in millions of pictures, paintings and crucifixes. When he is busted for breaking out of the camp, he is forced to strip and is lashed repeatedly in front of the rest of the “inmates” just as Christ was at Pilate’s Praetorium. The way he sacrificed himself for the others…pretty obvious.
That said, this movie was okay. P.J. Boudousqué has a similar look and feel to Ryan Gosling, but is obviously nowhere near the same plane acting-wise, so I can see where he might do some good work down the line. He was the best part of this one, so I’ll be curious to see where he ends up. James C. Burns was grossly miscast. For the entire film, I thought he was Thomas Calabro from Melrose Place. That’s not a good thing. The Colonel was flimsy as a character and even when his flaws came into play, it just didn’t matter as I didn’t really give a shit about him, his methods or his story. He had a purpose to serve and Grashaw tried (and failed in my opinion) to give him another level. The structure of the film is filled with flashbacks that give you, piece by piece, Brad’s backstory and the full tale of how he landed at Coldwater. They are poorly set up to give certain bits of information as big reveals, but they lack power and they carry less punch than had the film be edited chronologically since they don’t really reveal anything that couldn’t be seen a mile ahead of time. Another flashback sequence occurs at the end of the film that adds to an already confusing conclusion. Once again, the information revealed doesn’t quite pack the punch one would expect.
There are narrative similarities between it and Cool Hand Luke – setting, aversive conditioning, breaking the spirit of the strong willed, etc. – but that’s where that conversation can end. This film is nowhere near as lush or layered as Cool Hand Luke, but let’s be honest, how many are? It even goes a little Lord of the Flies at the end. So if that sounds like your cup of tea, then Coldwater may be for you. I didn’t connect with this film as the script and the film structure left a lot to be desired. But that’s just me…
Here’s the trailer: