In his production notes for Cold In July writer-director Jim Mickle states part of the appeal of making the film was that it balked the trend of most genre movies in so far as it refuses to conform to what it sets out to do in the opening ten minutes. While this maybe true Cold In July wastes no time in letting you become all too aware of the bleak, gritty yet darkly funny thriller you’re about to experience.
Waking one night to sounds coming from his living room family man Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) accidentally shoots and kills the intruder who was looking to rob him. Unfortunately said intruder was the son of recently released convict Russel (Sam Shepard). With Russel determined to avenge his son it seems he and Richard are on a collision course. But a twist of fate forces the two to work together to uncover a secret regarding the original killing. Recruiting private detective Jim Bob (Don Johnson) the unlikely trio set out to get to the bottom of a mystery none of them can quite comprehend.
Based on the book by Joe R. Lansdale, Cold In July starts out as a stark revenge thriller before subverting the genre and becoming a pulpish crime action film. Mickle and writing partner Nick Damici have form in their ability to take a genre and flip it on its head. Stake Land may be a vampire movie but it owes more to Romero’s zombie apocalypse films – of which one makes a brief cameo here – than it does to anything Bram Stoker ever conjured. As such, Cold In July keeps you guessing, constantly refusing to conform to expectations.
It starts as if the Coen Brothers were making Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence. Richard Dane, a farmer in a small town, is hailed as a hero but just wants to be left alone, he’s a no one and he likes it that way. But come the second act, by which time Richard has found a sense of destiny to follow and maybe even an appetite for the more violent life he has encountered, it slyly becomes a riveting little investigation rife with Tarantino-like characters. Jim Bob could easily have a film all of his own such is his ability to capture the imagination.
While the violence is sparse it packs enough punches to flaw a herd of cattle. The opening killing is at first almost nothing, a shot in the dark and a man slumping on to the sofa, before the lights are turned on to reveal a blood spattered wall and a mess that will take all manner of disinfectant to clean up. Then things go quiet, luring you into a false sense that the blood shed is over before bringing it back for the final reel with such impact each gunshot will leave you gasping.
The film is set in 1989 and Mickle hasn’t so much captured that time as made a film of that era. The aesthetics have a vintage Michael Mann blue hue to them, despite the sweltering temperatures of the Texas locations there is something forever cold in both the themes and visuals on offer. Throw in Jeff Grace’s wonderfully synthesizer driven score, which is immediately reminiscent of John Carpenter’s best work from the period, and Cold In July is a film that takes its period setting to levels rarely considered in terms of cinematic cannon.
The key three cast members are all on brilliant form. Johnson has rarely been given the kind of screen time in recent years to flex his acting chops but as Jim Bob he’s brilliantly funny, fiercely loyal and untouchable in a crisis. Shepard does his steel-eyed cowboy thing to perfection, early on he’s an almost Cape Fear like killer, all shark smiles and menacing looks but in the second half he becomes more powerful, a man on the edge of something that he can’t quite comprehend. Meanwhile Michael C. Hall proves that there is certainly life after Dexter for him. His Richard, sporting an entertaining ‘80s mullet, is reserved, obedient and never looking to make waves. He’s out of his depth from the get go but watching this regular Joe descend into the madness is always riveting in Hall’s hands.
Smartly subversive and perfectly pitched Cold In July recruits you into this trio of vigilantes and lets you revel in their company. Rarely do films allow for this level of dark peppered with just a smidge of tension alleviating comedy.