The Winter Lake is a straightforward, languidly paced thriller of imperfect people meeting during a transitional moment for all four of them. The titular body of water is a turlough—a seasonal lake that is very common in western Ireland—that borders two farms; on one farm is a teenaged boy and his mother, fleeing a toxic relationship in Britain and on the other is a widowed man and his teenage daughter, hoping to put some dark memories behind them. The film, as the turlough suggests, is set in western Ireland, in a small village in County Sligo.

Like a lot of thrillers, The Winter Lake relies heavily upon its setting for atmosphere, plot ellipses and character backstory. The filmmaking wants the audience to fill in the blanks about what the characters of the isolated Sligo hamlet are like after the script and cinematography drop a few hints: they are wary of outsiders, quick to form judgements and possessive of deep ancestral memories about who has lived here in the past. Such a setting is conducive to a good thriller, as it creates both many secrets and a great deal of incentive to keep those secrets hidden.

From this setup, The Winter Lake proceeds by mixing and matching all four major characters in nearly every possible permutation. The chief protagonist is Tom (Anson Boon), the teenaged boy who lives with his mother, Elaine (Charlie Murphy). Elaine’s grandfather had spent his life on the farm in Sligo, but she had never lived there full-time and returned to the village only in desperation. Elaine makes quick friends (with benefits) with the widow next door, Ward (Michael McElhatton), whose daughter Holly (Emma Mackey) slowly ingratiates herself with the socially awkward Tom.

The primary engine of the plot is that Holly and Ward have some facts about their pasts that they would like to keep hidden. Elaine is fairly oblivious to this; she just wants some stability and ease to make her chaotic life more bearable. On the other hand, Tom discovers Holly’s secret, but is both too scared and too angst-ridden to do much about it. What unfolds from here is fairly standard thriller fare.

Even though The Winter Lake relies so heavily on its setting to establish the narrative basis of the story, it evolves into a character study throughout its runtime. While this is an understandable choice, the setting is ultimately more interesting than the characters, so perhaps it was the wrong choice. Tom, Elaine, Holly and Ward are each basically stock characters and, though well-acted, are nothing too out of the ordinary. What is extraordinary is the location—the Sligo countryside—with its deep history of emigration (with which the locals are both familiar and comfortable) and its brand new status as a hotspot for immigration both from abroad and from within Ireland as Dubliners look to flee the high rents of the capital city. I live in a small Irish village myself, so take it from me: the dynamics of how villagers interact with insiders and outsiders, while hinted at in The Winter Lake, deserve to be explored in more depth than they are here. And the best thrillers—a recent example would be Prisoners—are almost always more about setting than characters or plot.

Even though the film relies so heavily on its Irish countryside setting to establish the narrative basis of the story, it evolves into a character study throughout its runtime.
61 %
Fairly standard thriller fare
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