' ' Cinema Romantico: Colewell

Thursday, January 16, 2020


“Colewell” refers to a small town in Pennsylvania where the post office is about to be shuttered, a victim of cost-cutting, threatening to sever the community’s heart, not to mention the livelihood of its sole, multi-decade employee, Nora (Karen Allen). It suggests rural America left behind, and though that idea lingers on the periphery, writer/director Tom Quinn eschews topicality to filter the metaphysical through the kitchen sink settings. Indeed, “Colewell” might be far from Philadelphia, but it’s not that far off from “The Irishman”, in so much as it becomes a kind of meditation on time, how life is both “forever and not long enough”, the line functioning as a prologue before being repeated later, where you don’t even sense the years just slipping through your fingers until most of them are already gone.

The movie opens by lyrically recounting Nora’s morning: putting on coffee, making eggs, getting the paper, opening the post office that doubles as her home. And this post office doubles as the community’s beacon, where locals converse with Nora and with each other, Quinn allowing us to hear snippets of these conversations, an early indicator that he will let his characters talk, meaningfully, rather than reducing them to passing symbols in a montage. There is a benevolence to the rhythm of this routine suggesting Jim Jarmusch’s fabulous “Paterson.” Yet whereas routine in “Paterson” was treated with something close to reverence, Quinn honors it before not so much tearing it down as quietly challenging it, honoring the opening line’s paradox in portraying the routine as giving and taking away. And though another performer might have foreshadowed the curtain being pulled back in these early moments, Allen remains committed to the moment itself, even when she’s pulling on her uniform in the mirror. It renders her character’s unmooring from what sustains her extra powerful, where the way she simply smiles at a mother and her kids in an unfamiliar town where her job might go look like someone casting about for a life preserver.

Cleverly, if not a little cruelly, “Colewell” ties its challenging of Nora’s routine to the routine itself, a letter arriving by mail indicating her office’s impending closure. It’s a decision that cuts to the community, certainly, seen in a convincing moment of civic outrage suggesting an outtake from Frederick Wiseman’s documentary “In Jackson Heights”, correlating rural and urban, though the scene ends with the camera finding Nora and slowly zooming in on her, as if the moment is designed most to cut her heart out. Indeed, she might wonder aloud if that window between her and her customers is her only window into fellowship, but Quinn evokes this in more than mere dialogue, demonstrating how her only relationships center around work, right down to the delivery man (Kevin J. O’Connor) who shows up every morning, looking at Nora with concern sometimes threatening to shade into pity, not that Allen, in her subtle steeliness will accept it.

No, Nora’s only friend outside work is Ella (Hannah Gross), something of a drifter, though Quinn remains elusive about exactly who she is. That vagueness is not a flaw but a means to have Ella work as something like a youthful echo of Nora. She turns up midway through the movie for dinner, the camera cutting between close-ups of the two women, underscoring the intimacy of their conversation, Nora finally but conversationally revealing what brought her to Colewell and why she stayed. The close-ups, though, don’t just underscore that intimacy but deliberately feel apart from the visual scheme up to this moment, the camera mostly having maintained a polite distance from its characters. It suggests an instant bond between the two, also evoked in how Ella just walks right in the door, without knocking, exchanging a smile with Nora as she does.

Maybe this is a recurring moment between the two, Nora giving brief food and shelter to the itinerant Ella, though the dialogue hints at something closer to cosmic connection even as it refrains from spelling it out. If they eventually part ways, they never feel apart, the back half of “Colewell” alternating between them, as if they are leading parallel lives. They might be. A scene of Ella hitching a ride with a trucker, foreshadowed in that opening dialogue, never quite shows the trucker and mostly shows Ella through the trucker’s rear view mirror, alluding to her life as something like Nora’s past, which she is now reflecting on in this great upheaval. I honestly half-expected the closing credits to say Gross was playing Nora.

“Colewell”, given frequent poetically enigmatic shots of foggy bathroom mirrors and characters obscured by drapes, seems like one of those movies destined to dissolve rather than end. That’s not quite true, though. It doesn’t build to some climactic showdown between the citizens and the United States Postal Services, thankfully, but to something more muted and powerful, a close-up of Ella that Quinn holds for a long time as she just sort of settles in with a cup of coffee and tries to find something like inner peace before a cut to Nora leaving her coffee cup, steam rising, on the counter to walk out the door. The routine is severed.

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