Winter People

June 1, 2012

Winter People is a sincere and almost total misfire. A curiosity, it doesn’t quite fit any single genre—which, generally speaking, is not a bad thing—but Winter People is just too weird and clunky to create its own niche.

The film is set in the 1930s. In the opening scenes, a gentle, widowed clockmaker (Kurt Russell) and his young daughter pull up stakes to search for better job opportunities for him. They get as far as a country hollow, where his car breaks down and he seeks shelter from a woman (Kelly McGillis) who lives alone in a small house in the backwoods.

This woman has a baby but no husband, a scandalous state of affairs that has led to her exile from the rest of her family, although she is still on speaking terms with her father (Lloyd Bridges) and her brothers. Russell, of course, ends up staying in the small community and building a clock tower for the town.

In doing so, he gets dragged into one of those classic backwoods family fights, because McGillis’s family is a-feudin’ with some ornery folk across the river. (They have long hair and beards, so we spot them for villains right away.) This brings about the movie’s main confrontations, although they turn out to be not quite as violent as you might expect.

It’s a very handsome film, with director Ted Kotcheff getting a nice feel for the woods and the small town. Kotcheff, unfortunately, is a colorless director, and he doesn’t shape or pace the material at all; some scenes seem to go on endlessly (and dourly—not a lot of humor here).

But even a better director might not have been able to conquer some of the thumping dialogue of Carol Sobieski’s script. For instance, McGillis is forced to say to her old flame, the hairy brute who is the father of her child, “I beat my head on the barn door once for you.” No wonder she seems so confused.

Winter People groans slowly along, losing steam as it goes. Both Russell and McGillis, two watchable actors, are in deliberately low gear, and the movie gets stolen by Lloyd Bridges, Don Michael Paul (as McGillis’s garrulous youngest brother), and a large bear that is sacrificed by a point-blank gunshot to the head. All are equally hammy.

First published in the Herald, April 13, 1989

Sobieski wrote a lot in a foreshortened life (she died a year after this film was released), including co-credit on a favorite TV-movie from my childhood, The Neon Ceiling. Kotcheff does everything. Among his many stops was Weekend at Bernie’s, which I believe gets more hits than any other movie on this site.