Writer/director Adam Rapp strikes a better balance once the meat of the story is underway. After years trying to find herself in New York, Reese returns home to her estranged, hermetic father (Ed Harris). She doesn't make the long bus ride to Traverse City for a reconciliation, no, but to unearth a stash of love letters between two universally beloved authors – her parents. Reese's late mother, with whom she also had little contact, had left these some 150 letters to her. There's a publisher desperate to print something by Don and Mary Holden, and a six figure check is in it for Reese if she's willing to part with them.
"Yeah, well, when you grow up in a house full of neo-Marxist, anti-TV, ex-hippie workaholics, Nancy Drew can become your best friend pretty fucking quickly."
It's not exactly an get-in/get-out mission. Her father is a broken man, having abandoned the warmth of their familial home in favor of the garage. A shell of the manically prolific author he once was, every sentence is a prolonged, agonizing ordeal for Don these days. He's left academia behind in favor of the bottle. So much as holding cutlery at the dinner table proves to be a mighty ordeal. Lord knows when the light of the sun last touched Don's skin. Inside Reese's former home, amongst a Sargasso Sea of untold thousands of books, live former student Shelly (Amelia Warner) and, uh, retired Christian rocker Corbit (Will Ferrell). As dismissive and outright venomous as Reese can be towards the three of them, she learns that old wounds untended cannot heal – that to chart a path forward, Reese must at long last confront her difficult past, and she cannot do this without her newfound, makeshift family.
The broadest strokes of its premise are decidedly familiar, and Winter Passing struggles with its share of tonal whiplash. There's suicide, life-ravaging illnesses, and Reese dragging a deer's carcass around in the dead of night, alongside indoor rounds of golf, hijinks with transplanting a recluse's bedroom set outdoors, and Corbit decked out in guyliner and mustering the strength to rock out with his sweet leftie Les Paul at open mic night. Still, after a short while, these disparate elements begin to make some measure of sense together. Rewatching Winter Passing for the first time in a decade, I'd forgotten just how long the joyless, depressing first act is, and the remainder blends Ferrell's borderline-cartoon-character with the misery porn more effectively than I'd remembered.
"Must have been an interesting childhood."
"Yeah. Competing for attention with twin No. 3 Underwood typewriters won't do much for your self-esteem."
So much of the success of Winter Passing is owed to its performances. As many films as I've watched Deschanel in over the years, I've never seen her this fearless or raw as an actor. It'd be a struggle to imagine Winter Passing resonating as it does if deprived of her large, expressive eyes. Ed Harris contributes a performance that is, as ever, intense and powerful. We're told of Don Holden's faded genius, and Harris ensures that both his brilliance and his descent are deeply felt, without relying on monologues or exposition as a crutch. Warner and, in particular, Ferrell are the beating heart of the film, whose collective warmth gradually melts the icy walls that Reese has erected. Adam Rapp's dialogue frequently sings as well. It's appreciated that Winter Passing embraces its deliberate pace and (generally) quiet, somber approach, resisting the compulsion to tie everything up in a tidy bow or a buoyantly cheerful ending.
If I had reviewed Winter Passing when it first came out on DVD back in 2006, it would easily have earned a Recommended rating. I'm not able to say the same about this Blu-ray release, disappointingly. It's microwaved leftovers, and that's too tough a sell at this price point. Rent It / Stream It instead.
This Blu-ray release of Winter Passing is unmistakably culled from the same master as the 13 year old DVD. The film was finished photochemically, so there's no obstacle standing in the way of a new scan beyond time or money. While the 1080p image is incrementally crisper than its standard-def counterpart, the difference is less than compelling. This presentation is on the fuzzy side, not standing out as particularly sharp or detailed. Grain is better defined compared to the DVD, but this texture is coarse and less distinct than I'd have expected. Despite the additional color depth that Blu-ray as a format has to offer, the dull, lifeless palette here is all but indistinguishable from the previous NTSC release. Open the comparisons below to full-size to get a sense of the differences yourself. It's too mild a refinement rather than the irresistible upgrade I'd expect from a disc with an $18-$25 price tag.
Winter Passing arrives on a BD-25 at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
Winter Passing defaults to the exact same Dolby Digital 5.1 (448kbps) track as the original DVD. Also along for the ride is an uncompressed 16-bit stereo soundtrack, which is unique to this Blu-ray release.
I'm baffled that lossy audio is even a thing on optical disc in this day and age, at least for a primary soundtrack. The six-channel track is on the meek side to boot, requiring turning up the volume a good bit higher than usual to compensate. That said, it's fine. Winter Passing doesn't demand much from the LFE, with music responsible for much of the activity in the lower frequencies. Atmospherics – background noise at the bar, the hustle and bustle of New York, and a thunderstorm, in particular – seize advantage of the remaining channels. I'm also pleased with how terrific and full a somber acoustic guitar in the score sounds at one key point. Dialogue is clear and readily discerned throughout, and there aren't any other concerns to be had. Though I miss the occasionally enveloping quality of the 5.1 audio upon switching to the LPCM stereo track, it's not a night and day difference otherwise. Admittedly, the very different volume levels make a direct comparison a bit cumbersome.
Subtitles are offered in English (SDH) and Spanish.
It's also worth noting that Winter Passing is an all-region release.
The Final Word
Though I appreciate Winter Passing as a film, this Blu-ray release is difficult to recommend. The dated transfer, lossy 5.1 audio, and near-total lack of extras ensure that it's not a compelling upgrade for longtime admirers who already own the DVD. And for those who don't yet have a copy of Winter Passing on the shelf, these same concerns hardly cry out for a purchase sight-unseen, given that what MVD is asking $20 for here isn't all that different from what's streaming on Prime Video for "free". For collectors only.