Cottage Country is a passable dark comedy with a hidden critique of yuppie materialism
In Ontario cottage country isn’t only a region — it’s a patchwork universe built around upper-middle-class comfort. And the Muskokas the idyllic lake-pocked setting for director Peter Wellington’s Cottage Country is the most famed of Ontario’s wooded retreats: The New York Times dubbed it the Malibu of the North because it’s where wealthy Torontonians Steven Spielberg and Cindy Crawford go for some peace quiet and kayaking. It’s not a place where things are supposed to go wrong — until of course they do.
That’s the basic premise of Cottage Country . Todd (Tyler Labine best known as Jimmy from Breaker High ) and Cammie (Malin Akerman of Watchmen fame) star as the film’s vanilla middle-class couple. They’re stereotypical Toronto WASPs who work white-collar jobs. Todd hopes to propose to Cammie at his parents’ cottage but when they arrive there’s a problem — Todd’s art-school-dropout brother Salinger arrives to ruin their fun. The protagonist’s plan is soon derailed when his brother brings his Russian girlfriend Masha and plans a party.
Cammie the bride-to-be is frustrated by Salinger’s arrival and it’s on Todd to get him to leave. The brothers — who if it wasn’t yet apparent are rivals — end up fighting and Salinger ends up with an axe to the throat. From there a black comedy ensues: The couple then murder Masha and attempt to cover their tracks. The only problem? Salinger’s friends arrive for the party leading the duo even deeper into a web of lies.
What follows is a typical narrative arc. The duo are forced into doing bleaker and bleaker things to conceal their secret especially when one of Salinger’s friends Dov (Benjamin Ayres who is befuddling as an Orthodox Jewish character) begins to notice something awry and calls the cops to report a missing person. It’s yet another layer of complication for the couple who struggle to get their stories straight amidst a police investigation confused parents and their own bittersweet wedding vows.
While Cottage Country bills itself as a comedy it possesses few truly funny moments even if Labine and Akerman are convincing enough as accidental murderers; the former emerges as a bumbling idiot the latter eventually morphs into a malicious sociopath. Neither is particularly relatable. What’s likable about Cottage Country — and what holds our interest throughout the film — is its familiar setting: Yes it’s beautiful but there’s a real socioeconomic critique at play here too.
And that’s what makes Cottage Country sinister. It’s a black comedy yes but it’s about a couple who must maintain their lifestyle — or their expected lifestyle — at all costs. Viewed through that lens the film actually takes on a subversive aura. Todd and Cammie aren’t particularly likable sure but perhaps it’s by design. They are after all two people who are willing to commit heinous crimes in order to preserve their upper-middle-class future.
Like plenty of Canadian-centred films Cottage Country ’s success relies on the audience’s familiarity with its setting. Without understanding the film’s subtext it’s a passable if somewhat forgettable dark comedy. But for those of us who get cottage country (and who’ve witnessed its joys and contradictions first-hand) Cottage Country is more complex and nuanced.