Cold Canadian Greed

(Canada, 90 min.)
Dir. Jason R. Goode, Writ. Andre Harden
Starring: Jamie Bamber, Marie Avgeropoulos, Aleks Paunovic, Stefanie von Pfetten
Jamie Bamber, Stefanie von Pfetten, Marie Avgeropoulos, and Aleks Paunovic star in Numb.
Photo by Jan Kiesser, courtesy of A71.

Hey, Leo: you think it’s cold up here in Canada? You say you froze your buns off while shooting The Revenant? Well, you haven’t experienced true Canadian winter like these four kids have.

Numb, a tense indie thriller from director Jason R. Goode, sees a quartet of Canucks stomp about the cold Canadian wilderness in search of some elusive treasure. The four searchers are a mix of Leo’s bloodthirsty Hugh Glass and Rinko Kikuchi’s Kumiko, the treasure hunter, as they go forth over yonder in search of buried gold. Even daft little Kumiko is and/or was smart enough to bundle up with a motel room blanket whilst scrounging for the hidden loot from Fargo, yet the four prospectors of Numb forget the all-important survival tool to Canadian winter: mittens.

The film that ultimately echoes strongest through these snowy mountains, though, is not The Revenant, Kumiko, or Fargo, but John Huston’s 1948 classic The Treasure of Sierra Madre as impoverished couple Will (Jamie Bamber) and Dawn (Stefanie von Pfetten) find themselves as the Mr. and Mrs. Fred Dobbs of renegade prospecting. The husband and wife team is flawed from the outset, as they find themselves in dire times while searching for jobs to save their home. Both lie to one another to save face and hide the severity of their circumstances.

They meet some shady characters when they give a lift to sketchy siblings Cheryl (Marie Avgeropoulos) and Lee (Aleks Paunovic) while driving home to Vancouver. Something seems off about Cheryl and Lee, if not mildly incestuous, but things take a dark turn when the four rescue an old man wandering the highway. He succumbs to exposure en route to the hospital. All four travellers are in a bind, however, so when Lee pilfers the dead man’s pockets and Cheryl finds a piece of paper with numbers on it, they decipher that the man died while searching for buried gold.

Numb surprises by showing a portion of BC that developers haven’t pilfered for condos as the four hunters head deep into the woods to find the X that marks the spot. Numb requires a fair suspension of disbelief as the quartet of treasure hunters goes deep into the woods with modest costumes that would struggle to keep even a city dweller warm on a cold winter’s day. Will and Dawn, the homelier of the two pairs, are modestly prepared for the occasion, but Lee and Cheryl are horrible ill-suited for stomping around in knee-deep snow for hours on end. Numb has a simple case of the “If you just added a line…” disease as nobody in the group considers the idea of buying some mitts before prospecting. The script by Andre Harden foreshadows the inevitable downfall that awaits the group with their misguided decisions. Whether they’re blinded by greed or the blazing whiteness of snow, things don’t look good.

Numb puts a Canadian spin on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as the four prospectors inevitably turn on one another during their quest for buried gold. Allegiances form between couples, while the pairs eventually divorce one another as greed fuels individual needs over those of the collective. Numb tells a familiar tale with its story of ill-gotten greed, but the ravenousness of the four resonates with a special chill as Harden’s script situates it within the contemporary financial crisis and the desperation it breeds.

As one watches Numb, it’s hard to deny the legitimacy of the “what if” scenario as Will and Dawn find themselves at the edge of poverty when the film begins. He can’t get a job and she’s already borrowed money from her dad, and with the bank ready to foreclose on their house, they need a cash grab like a Lotto Max player needs seven magic numbers. The film smartly turns the cold chill of capitalism back on Will and Dawn as they pursue the riches they believe hide in the woods: a person should share the wealth, not horde it. A certain work ethic demands fair work for fair pay, but the hardship of the financial crisis doesn’t make it okay to take from the banks and the potentially bereaved family that the original bounty hunter left behind. As Frank Underwood says, “You are entitled to nothing.”

The performances capture the different levels of entitlement, avarice, and emptiness that characterise selfish pursuits of material wealth at a time when finer things, like community and family, hold a higher currency. As Will, Bamber is the noblest of the quartet, a clear-headed survivalist who masks his vulnerability behind a boy scout’s honour. Avgeropoulos has a wilder ravenousness as Cheryl, the dirtiest and most mischievous schemer of the bunch. Paunovic offers a tough and hardened foil for Will as Lee with his stone-faced hunger to get the gold. von Pfetten, finally, gives the film’s strongest performance as Dawn undergoes Numb’s best arc as a fighter, hunter, ally, and foe who loses sight of her values the more she sets her eyes on the prize. von Pfetten also gives the most convincing performance battling the extreme cold of the setting, as Dawn gradually freezes over while others sometimes shiver like Juliette Lewis in Christmas Vacation.

The frostbite make-up is much more impressive here than it is in the 1989 holiday classic though, as splotches of red gradually spread over the characters’ hands and faces. The make-up is most convincing, and it makes for a fine image of the madness and greediness that infects the group as they approach the gold. The film also makes strong use of the dangerous landscapes with colours so cold that one can’t help but shiver while watching the drama unfold.

Numb a chilling thriller with strong themes and flawed, engaging characters who let audiences see something of themselves in Will and Dawn’s fall into the cold clutches of greed. As with The Treasure of Sierra Madre, the corrupting influence of wealth and greed resonates strongly in this parable that reflects the economic hardship of the times and the inevitable hopelessness that comes with it as families divide themselves in search of opportunities. Naturally, Numb also has some nefarious characters who don’t need no stinking badges.

Numb screens Wednesday, March 2 at select Landmark Cinemas as part of the Canadian Indie Film Series. It opens in theatres on Friday, March 4.