Cold in July, director Jim Mickle’s adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s novel, is a stark, gritty production and a powerful example of what happens when the screenplay is one step ahead of the audience. The movie twists and turns and thwarts expectations, and despite some plot contrivances, it’s a solid, if grim, viewing experience.
Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) is awakened by his wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) in the middle of the night in their East Texas home. She heard something. Then he hears it, too, and he grabs a pistol from a shoebox in the closet and sets out to investigate.
Stopping by his son’s room to check on him, Richard makes his way to the living room and surprises a burglar. The burglar shines a flashlight in Richard’s face, and Richard accidentally fires the pistol, killing the intruder instantly.
The intruder’s death is about the last concrete plot point in Cold in July. That is to say, we know Richard fired the gun, and we know he killed an intruder. What happens next becomes the first in a series of twists. Local cop Ray Price (Nick Damici, who co-wrote the screenplay) tells Richard the intruder is Freddy Russell, a lowlife with outstanding warrants better dead than alive.
Unfortunately, Freddy’s father Ben (Sam Shepard) is recently released from prison—it seems from a long stretch—and decides, upon learning who killed his son, to make life difficult for the Danes. (Richard makes the mistake of going to the burial.) Ben breaks into the Dane home and leaves live ammunition in the kid’s room. When the police catch Ben, Richard begins to think the police aren’t telling him everything about the case—and that maybe he didn’t kill Freddy, but someone else—though his demands for answers are rebuffed.
Cold in July has three distinct sections. First, the shooting and its aftermath. Second, the question as to whom Richard actually killed. And third, what Richard is going to do about it. Eventually, he and Ben become uneasy allies, especially after a botched police attempt to make the entire case disappear.
Just when things start getting extra twisty (and slightly more unbelievable), Don Johnson shows up as a wily private eye and pig farmer named Jim Bob who owes Ben a favor. Johnson’s ease at playing a charming lout goes a long way in smoothing over some of the rougher story patches.
For example, Richard, who seems perfectly reasonable, becomes more and more unhinged. Not like a crazy person, and not like someone who accidentally killed someone in his own home and as a result may be losing it, but because the screenplay demands it. He also makes choices that are questionable. Again, not because they’re organic, but because the story requires them.
Plus, Hall may not have been the perfect choice for Richard. The mullet and mustache he’s been given look odd on him, like props in sketch comedy, and Hall is such a mannered performer that Richard seems a little too studied, a little too put together, even when Richard’s choices lead him down darker and darker roads.
But it’s pulp, and pulp demands certain conventions, and the conventions are sufficiently nasty. Richard, Jim Bob and Ben uncover grisly activities that all, in some way, lead back to Ben. The three men become more and more sickened, but resolved, when they realize they may be the only people to deal with the vile stuff they uncovered. There’s also some low-level government conspiracy activity that’s not really fully explored, but it’s an intriguing side road.
All the different story facets converge in an explosive finale that feels partly deserved and partly arbitrary, but certainly inevitable. Again, it’s pulp, and it delivers the goods. The screenplay’s creakier moments are well masked by the acting (even Hall’s toward the end, whose mannerisms work with the bloody climax). Shepard is nothing short of sensational and Johnson may be the current king of acting turns, deftly being randy one moment and deadly serious the next.
Cold in July is set in 1989, but the score sounds like—and this is not negative criticism—a cheap 1985 horror film. The violence is appropriate, even though it’s occasionally overwrought with corny symbolism.
Mickle’s direction is assured and the outcome fittingly dark. Damici is excellent, too, and Wyatt Russell (Kurt and Goldie Hawn’s kid) does well in a small, flashy role, though he looks so much like both his parents it’s a little distracting.
Cold in July is far from perfect, but flaws and all, this movie is really worth seeing. It would make a compelling double bill with Blue Ruin, another recent violent and twisty tale with a very different set of values.
Dir. Jim Mickle; writ. Jim Mickle and Nick Damici (based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale; feat. Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw, Wyatt Russell and Nick Damici
Opens Fri, May 30 at Santikos Bikou
★★★ 1/2 (out of 5 stars)
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