One of the enduring archetypes of Canadian literature and cinema is the troubled protagonist who retreats into the woods to work through some past or ongoing crisis. The dangerous thing about archetypes, of course, is how easily they can shade into clichés. Happily, the creators of the exquisite Canadian feature The Oxbow Cure use their back-to-nature scenario as a launching pad rather than a crutch – a jumping-off point for a potent and poetic piece of portraiture that doubles as a hymn to the frostbitten Muskokan landscape.
As the film opens, Lena (Claudia Dey) is preparing for a trip away from home. We get fleeting glimpses of a farewell party thrown by friends, though the mood seems far from celebratory. The reasons for Lena’s departure and the significance of her destination – a modest cottage a few hours from Toronto – are initially vague, but it never feels obscure. Directors Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis bring the camera so close to their protagonist that it feels as if we can climb inside her skin.
This is not a comfortable place to be. It gradually becomes clear that Lena is suffering from a painful physical condition that is affecting her entire body. Dey, who has previously won acclaim as a novelist and columnist, proves herself to be a superb and uninhibited physical performer. She doesn’t need very much dialogue to make an impression because the character’s body language is positively loquacious. What it speaks to – always in a tense, tentative whisper – is that this a woman who is balancing a heavy weight on her shoulders in addition to the strain that her condition is placing on her spine.
The filmmakers also introduce a sense of external threat via the stranger that Lena glimpses lurking through the trees near the cottage – an unwelcome silhouette whose presence threatens to drag things into thriller or even horror movie territory. Happily, Thomas and Lewis show an ability to bend generic elements to their whims. Instead of feeling grafted onto the slender frame of a character study, these spooky interludes come from deep within the story’s bones. The tender, tremulous style of The Oxbow Cure may lie several hundred kilometres down the road from the cold clinicality of David Cronenberg, but its creators are similarly preoccupied with bodily trauma; the interloper’s monstrous physique corresponds to Lena’s grotesque self-image just as surely as the slow thawing of the snow around her new home hints at an endpoint for her own emotional deep freeze.
Lewis and Thomas shot The Oxbow Cure themselves, along with their co-cinematographer Ian Carleton, and the images have an icy precision that belies the film’s minuscule budget; Lev Lewis’s swelling, full-bodied musical score similarly works to offset any sense of minimalism. Even when the film doesn’t quite achieve the lyricism it’s reaching for, the filmmakers’ willingness to stretch themselves – and their confidence that their audience will stretch along with them – is heartening. The Oxbow Cure is a movie that takes both the difficulty and the urgency of healing very seriously; Lena’s desire to transcend her situation on her own terms reflects a similar stubborn optimism on the other side of the camera. The film is fragile, but the artistic prognosis couldn’t be healthier.