‘Cold Pursuit’ works as a comedy of absurdist violence
A lot can change in two weeks. My screening of Cold Pursuit occurred in late January, when this movie would’ve been significantly easier to review. I’m writing this, however, in early February, after the press tour for Cold Pursuit went horrifically wrong—with Liam Neeson admitting he’d once sought racist revenge and whatnot. An art critic’s job is to criticize art, but one should not make the mistake of separating art from artist, which is irresponsible at best and irreparably damaging at worst. So then, let’s dip our toes into the proverbial ice water.
Despite looking like the 37th Taken sequel, Cold Pursuit is actually Hans Petter Moland’s remake of his own Norwegian film, In Order of Disappearance. And it isn’t your average American remake: it’s just as much of a slow, dark comedy as the original. There’s only one bona fide action scene in the entire movie and it’s deliberately disappointing. In actuality, Cold Pursuit is a fatalistic look at the futility of violence—casting Hollywood’s favorite vengeance machine was a subversive move.
Liam Neeson plays Nels Coxman (that’s supposed to sound phallic, the Norwegian version was Nils Dickman), the resident snowplow driver of a small town in the Rocky Mountains. He’s an introverted man, content with clearing the roadways and spending time with his family. But tragedy strikes his idyllic life when his son is found dead—the coroners rule it a heroin overdose, but Coxman knows a murderous cartel is at fault. Thus begins the revenge killing.
It’s also when the subversive element of Liam Neeson’s presence kicks in. Instead of the consequence-free murder spree typical of Taken, Neeson’s character in Cold Pursuit embarks on a sluggish murder checklist, armed with no particular set of skills and only creating more trouble for himself and his loved ones. To Cold Pursuit, the violence of men is an absurd thing, which is doubly emphasized by a tonal focus on absurdist comedy. Due in part to Moland’s European sensibility, Cold Pursuit offers no reprieve from its gallows humor—it’s all uncomfortable laughter from end to end. The methods through which the movie achieves its absurdism can be rather brilliant: from visual gags to clever jokes to its twinkly little score, Cold Pursuit finds numerous ways to paint violence as the most ridiculous choice in the world.
Which is not to say that it doesn’t take violence seriously. The film’s narrative has a keen eye for how violence disproportionately affects the oppressed. After Coxman picks off a couple cartel henchmen, the main antagonist—a wealthy white man—mistakenly blames his indigenous rivals, leading him to kill an innocent Native American person. This racist murder fuels the conflict that drives the rest of the movie.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Liam Neeson contemplated a similar crime when he was a young man, which is probably why he felt compelled to bring it up during a Cold Pursuit interview. Allegedly, a woman close to Liam Neeson told him that a black man had raped her, and Neeson responded by searching for any black man to bludgeon to death. He later came to his senses and sought help from a priest. After admitting to his heinous act, Neeson added context to his upbringing: he grew up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, a three-decade guerilla war waged by the IRA in a bid for Irish nationalism. This context cannot vindicate Neeson, but it does strike at a central theme of Cold Pursuit: justifying violence by dividing people into categories—whether by race, gender, class, or religion—trains privileged categories to be violent from a young age. If the privileged don’t introspect and condemn this internalized violence, the world becomes cyclically ruthless.
A satire of this cycle can only work if it’s severed from reality. On its own, Cold Pursuit works as a comedy of absurdist violence. But after Neeson’s confession, Cold Pursuit can no longer exist on its own: it’s inexorably connected to its star’s past, which reminds us of a violence too real to be satirized. The brutalized body of Emmett Till—and of countless others—is the real result of the impulse that once drove the central actor. While Cold Pursuit deserves recommendation on the level of filmmaking craft alone, perhaps a better movie to watch now is one that sees violence like Neeson sees his past actions: through a lens of horrified shame.