One evening in East Texas, in the last year of the 1980s, a burglar breaks into a home. The homeowner, a mulleted, buff, though clearly baffled man nervously digs up his revolver (his hands shake as he loads the thing) in order to protect his wife and child. As the homeowner creeps into the living room, he sees the shadow of man ransacking his living room. Shots are fired. The burglar is dead.
From this seemingly simple premise emerges a complex—at times ridiculously complex—and compelling little thriller, Cold in July, from director Jim Mickle, and based (loosely, I’ve heard) on a novel by Joe R. Landsdale (who wrote the novel on which Bubba Ho-Tep was based—that was a novel?) Mickle is the director of two moderately acclaimed horror films (Stake Land and We Are What We Are) and his love of 1980s drive-in and straight-to-video fare shows in Cold in July, which features a pulsating electronic score that John Carpenter himself might have scored and plenty of period detail.
Director: Jim Mickle
Producers: Adam Folk, Linda Moran, Marie Savare
Writers: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle, Joe R. Lansdale (novel)
Cinematographer: Ryan Samul
Editor: John Paul Horstmann, Jim Mickle
Music: Jeff Grace
Cast: Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard, Vinessa Shaw, Wyatt Russell, Nick Damici, Lanny Flaherty, Kristin Griffith, Dorothea Swiac, Joe Lanza, Rachel Zeiger-Haag, Laurent Rejto, Happy Anderson, Tim Lajcik, Brogan Hall, Ken Holmes
Premiere: January 18, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: May 23, 2014
US Distributor: IFC Films
To a degree, Cold in July depressed as much as it entertained the heck out of me. This is not a great movie in the sense of it moving us to feel or to think differently or to be awed by some sublime beauty. No, Cold in July is entertainment, pure and simple, a dynamite show that would be fun to dissect over cold beers afterwards, a film that I would’ve loved to have caught in one of the small theaters in my hometown of Mt. Pleasant, Michigan in the 1980s. Or even today.
But instead we have a weekend of corporate bullshit filling theaters, and Cold in July will hang out at the Lagoon Theater for a couple weeks, where art house patrons like myself will have to be content viewing it without teenagers. And they’re the ones who should really catch this thing to see how you take a lifetime of digesting garbage and create a story that is damn cool and fun to watch.
Cold in July has three acts, and each one feels as though it’s a different movie—radically different. The film opens with the killing of the intruder by Richard Dane, played by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, who’s quite unrecognizable with his moustache and mullet. Hall is fantastic here, and from his opening scenes we get the first signal that director Mickle is going to be giving us something worthwhile—Dane is a great character, and this is a solid, interesting performance. Dane wears a pained look throughout this film, as if he’s trying desperately to get to the bottom of something he’s pretty sure he’ll never really understand.
Dane, his wife, Ann (Vinessa Shaw), and Ray, the cop on the scene (played by Nick Damici, who also co-wrote the script with Mickle), should be three caricatures—dumb Texas husband, shrill Christian wife, the tough-ass cop, respectively. Instead, not only does Mickle coax subtle performances out of these actors, he gives them things to do that reveals a tremendous respect—and this goes for anyone who has a speaking line in this movie. Thank God, too, for Richard’s relationship with his son and wife—complex, loving at times, heated and angry and petty in others—this marriage is real, as are all the relationships here.
Turns out our man Richard, who owns a framing shop, has killed the son of a nasty criminal recently paroled, Ben Russell, played with steely intensity by Sam Shepard. Russell is naturally pissed, and when he sees Richard attending his son (the intruder’s) funeral, he lets it be known that he’s going to be watching Richard, and maybe coming after him and his family, Cape Fear-style.
The confrontation between Richard and Ben is tight and spot-on and, like Howard Hawks at his best, defines all of our characters through their action, with little to no backstory to clog up the works. And now Cold in July changes gears—turns out that there’s a twist, and maybe Richard didn’t kill Ben’s son. After saving Ben from certain death at the hands of the cops, the two form an uneasy alliance to get at the truth.
Which brings in private detective Jim Bob Luke, played by Don Johnson, who I’m starting to wish was in just about every damn thriller (since he stole Django Unchained away from… well, just about everybody). Jim Bob drives a cherry red convertible and wears a white cowboy hat, but again, he isn’t your usual clichéd fun-time redneck—he and Ben are good pals from Korea, and works as a PI to augment his income from his pig farm.
This pursuit of the truth takes up our middle act, and when Jim Bob makes certain discoveries, this sends Cold in July down a third, totally different path. This one involves revenge and snuff films that, though handled with the same deftness as the first two acts, becomes strained, unnecessary and reveals this whole as less than the sum of its individual parts. This is not to say that the close of July is bad, just that there suddenly becomes a need for a device while will make Ben better than his wayward son. Don’t forget, this is the Ben whose crimes are never revealed, except that they put him away in prison for a long time, not to mention the utter ease at which he was going to harass Richard’s own young child. Now he needs to be a hero and this has to come at someone’s expense, so what crime makes Ben’s pale in comparison? The answer is gruesome, but worse, it feels very forced, and is so unpalatable that it brings a rather grungy imbalance to the picture. Not to mention it kind of makes no sense whatsoever, calling to your attention the lack of logic in the picture (but which I was willing to forgive for all its strengths).
No matter, because you can bask in each and every scene and really marvel at the fun you’re having. To compare this film to a Hawks production once again, Mickle seems intent on following that director’s strictest rule for a good movie: make three good scenes and no bad ones. Cold in July has no bad scenes, and plenty of great ones. I’m almost at a loss as to how he managed to do so many small things perfectly--Cold in July takes place in the 1980s, and yet, unlike so many movies that seek verisimilitude (American Hustle comes immediately to mind, as does Mad Men), Mickle’s touch is so subtle here. The details of each and every home reveal character—from Jim Bob’s framed photos of pigs on his wall (and framer Richard pausing to straighten them on the wall), to Richard’s home and its flower pattered couch and barred windows (he is surrounded by frames). Each character’s backstory is revealed either through action or small bits of conversation that lingers. And Richard himself is fascinating, a man who pursues this quest both because of his own moral certainty—though he does not use his wife’s Christian platitudes nor share the cop’s brutal law-n-order banter. Richard’s motivations are in fact more Christian and have more respect for law and order than the characters who supposedly live by those codes.
Cold in July would, in fact, be the perfect drive-in movie, though certainly that won’t happen anytime soon, and not just because there’s hardly any drive-ins remaining. A solid, totally compelling little thriller, Cold in July’s fate will probably be a life of streaming on Netflix, and prominence on a number of “underrated” lists in the years to come.