Tribeca Review: First Winter


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First Winter is all about Brooklyn hipsters dealing with mortality. All the actors in the movie I’ve probably seen on the street. At least I’ve seen people who look a lot like them. (Think less Colin Meloy and more Devendra Banhart.) In fact, there was an unexpected surprise while watching the movie: one of the actresses in the film works at a local business just a few blocks away from my apartment.

You see, I’ve lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for a few years, the hipster capital of the world. I won’t be here for too much longer. I don’t have a problem with hipsters or anything, but the rising rents are sending me to places where I can get more space for less money, and where facial hair is sincere.

So I’m getting away from Williamsburg at the end of the month. About halfway through First Winter, I pretty much wanted the film to end.

First Winter
Director: Benjamin Dickinson
Rating: TBD
Release Date: TBD

First Winter is another “hanging out at the end of the world” movie, sort of like 4:44 Last Day on Earth but in an upstate farmhouse rather than a Lower East Side loft. (And not as good.) We’re introduced to all our characters upfront during a yoga class. Each does their poses according to the will of Paul (Paul Manza). They’ve all assembled at Paul’s isolated farm in the winter to hang out, do yoga, screw, and get high. They wake one morning to a blackout, which they slowly learn isn’t going to let up. Eventually they get some sense that society has collapsed outside of the farm, and they have to figure out how to survive.

The set-up has potential. As a dark comedy or satire, it could be a hipster version of The Exterminating Angel. Yet First Winter is not a dark or satirical film. Instead, it’s a smug and solipsistic film. The characters seem unconcerned with the idea that society as we know it may be gone. There’s no sense of the greater ramifications of what that may mean, and none of them are curious enough to check the news. You’d think at least one of them would care, even just a little, about the rest of the world.

At one point Paul and Matt (Matt Chastain) stare out at the horizon and see an ominous plume of smoke. It’s the kind you’d imagine from a massive fire or explosion. Since the characters all seem to be between 25 and 35, I assume they have memories of 9/11. One of them probably lived in the city during the attack. Some anxiety must be there, or at least a concern. Instead, Paul and Matt are emotionally detached; not in a shocked way but an ironic way. They crack a joke while the world burns. Again, great in a dark comedy or satire, but First Winter is neither.

I don’t recall any of them contacting people outside the farm. They still have battery life on their iPhones for a while, and there’s probably a landline somewhere in that place, and yet no one makes a call to figure out what’s going on. You’d figure someone would phone their folks or a friend to see if they’re okay. That just doesn’t happen. There’s no concern for anything but this fraudulent little new age haven out in the middle of nowhere. To be fair, I don’t recall anyone from the outside calling or texting the characters either. It’s probably because the characters are so unlikable that their friends and family have cut off all ties with them. Explicit answers about the societal collapse aren’t necessary, but that lack of concern shows these characters for what they are: self-centered, self-satisfied jerks.

It makes sense, though. I’m no yoga expert, but at the beginning Paul seemed to shoot through each pose rather quickly. It could have been a warm-up, but it’s more likely that he just doesn’t care all that much. His ulterior motive is to lure impressionable young women to his place and f**k them silly until he’s bored and finds a replacement. His latest impressionable little toy is Jenn (Jennifer Kim), soon to be replaced by Sam (Samantha Jacober).

Matt calls Paul out on his predatory ways as tensions ratchet up on the farm. We expect some larger conflict between the two, especially since Matt’s sexually frustrated and Paul’s trying to bang anything in the house that’s female. Matt’s got a limited supply of heroin to snort, the food’s going to run out, the firewood’s in short supply. Scarcity and resentment between these friends present the possibility for rich personal drama. There’s jealousy between Jenn and Sam. Other characters seem alone or frightened. There’s even the possibility that Paul might use his ownership of the farm to force others to obey his crazed whims. There’s a possibility that the entire sham of this farm and its pseudo-spiritual ideals will be questioned and torn apart, and the petty characters will also be torn up in the process.

But writer/director Benjamin Dickinson seems non-committal about the whole story thing. Tensions are introduced and dropped for no apparent reason. It seems like only half of the movie was scripted while the rest was improvised. It’s a “hanging out at the end of the world” movie made by some people just hanging out. The acting is generally good on a scene by scene basis, but it’s really just a collection of scenes. Nothing carries through. We have people existing in moments, as if there were no moments before. Where went the jealousy that was so driving? Where went the desperation of the entire ordeal?

So instead of a chance for self-reflection, we get an uncompelling story wed to a compelling idea, with decent actors playing non-characters. For a life and death struggle, no one seems to be all that bothered. They learn nothing, they essentially lose nothing, they don’t even completely hate each other even though they have good reason to. This is supposed to be a confrontation with mortality, but we see more of a listless boredom rather than an existential dread. It’s like they’re trying to figure out how to spend a hungover Sunday afternoon.

On top of not trying to contact the outside world, I don’t recall any of them trying to escape either. They could have tried something, like making mukluks out of couch cushions and heading out to the nearest town. Better that than dying with a creepy, manipulative yoga instructor with no redeeming qualities. Some of their friends left in an SUV to get supplies somewhere, so maybe the nearest town isn’t so far off — a day or two walk up the road?

Come to think of it, their friends in the SUV never came back. I wonder what happened to them. Actually, since none of the characters seem to care much about them, I probably shouldn’t care either. Just get me out of here.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.