starring Claudia Dey
screenplay by Yonah Lewis, Calvin Thomas, Lev Lewis
directed by Yonah Lewis & Calvin Thomas
by Angelo Muredda The latest in a wave of immersive, formally-sophisticated works from young Toronto filmmakers that includes Kazik Radwanski's Tower and Igor Drljaca's Krivina, Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas's The Oxbow Cure expresses a bold new vision even as it fits itself snugly within established Canadian cultural traditions. As a film about a woman who heads off to an isolated cabin to treat a mystery illness, you could say it's indebted to David Cronenberg's '70s output, and its unhysterical depiction of a body in the throes of a profound, if still mostly imperceptible, transformation make it a more worthy heir to the queasy body horror of Shivers and Rabid than the baroque flourishes of Antiviral. Cronenberg echoes aside, for students of Canadian literature, the minimalist plot might also recall Margaret Atwood's seminal novel Surfacing, which similarly sends a young woman in crisis off into the woods on a sort of vision quest, exposing her to the elements of her home country and to the uncivilized mirror image of herself it offers up.
Whether Atwood is a touchstone or not (the film's loner-in-the-wild mythos could just as easily be traced to Denis Côté's equally austere and affecting Curling), Lewis and Thomas have pulled off a minor miracle by emphasizing the atmospheric potential of this familiar story. The Oxbow Cure is full of mythical and national resonances, in other words--what could be more northern than a gothic winter sojourn at the cottage? But it taps into them without making a show of it, organically grounding itself in a world of turtlenecks, heavy boots, and ominously-snapped twigs. The result is an unmistakably Canadian fable that draws its phantasmagoric power from the strangeness of its setting, a place where you wouldn't be surprised to see a bog person emerge from the lake and gently rap at your cabin door.
Here, the bog man (or woman) in question is an unidentified shambling creature that dogs Lena (Toronto-based playwright and novelist Claudia Dey) throughout what's supposed to be a recuperative trip to Oxbow Lake. Haunted by the illness of her aging father and the debilitating disease that's slowly mutating her own spine, Lena, when we meet her, is in a weird place, early in the process of casting off her life in the city to heal herself in a natural world that's completely alien to her. Paradoxically, it's only when Lena's most alone in her new digs that she finds any real company, looking at her grotesque neighbour, whose stooped posture suggests a future projection of herself, with something like tenderness.
Eerily quiet for most of its running time, save for its finely-tuned soundscape, the distinctive orchestral score of editor and co-screenwriter Lev Lewis, and a pair of swooning pop songs that bookend the main action, The Oxbow Cure is at its best at its least literal and most opaque. A brief passage that has Lena reciting a letter to her father momentarily breaks the spell, if only because it underlines what Lewis and Thomas's evocative filmmaking already accomplishes without words. This is a gorgeously-lensed film, full of stark compositions that depict Lena as a black turtlenecked dot on a white map and anxious tracking shots that follow her tentative progress through an enormous wilderness that could swallow her up at any moment. It's an innately Canadian film, then, but also a plain good one.