By Linc Leifeste | May 22, 2014
Director: Jim Mickle
Writer: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle, Joe R. Lansdale (novel)
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard, Vinessa Shaw, Wyatt Russell, Nick Damici, Brogan Hall
While modern Southern/country Gothic/Noir on film (what there is of it) is hit and miss for me, I’m a Texas boy through and through and a huge fan of films such as Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men. So director Jim Mickle’s latest film, Cold in July, had me at “Texas noir” (despite Mickle being from Pennsylvania and the film being shot in New York). And the top billing of actors such as Sam Shepard, Don Johnson and Michael C. Hall didn’t dampen my enthusiasm in the least. And for the first half of the film, I felt like I might be falling in love. Then at about the halfway point, the film suddenly took a jarring turn and veered off full steam into cheesy, B-movie, repulsively violent territory, ultimately leaving me in mind of the Everly Brothers’ tune, “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad).”
Set in a rural East Texas town, circa 1989, Cold in July opens with a sleeping Ann Dane (Vinessa Shaw) being awoken by the sound of a break-in. She wakens her husband, Richard (Michael C. Hall), who proceeds to retrieve a revolver and ammunition from a closet and shakily load the gun. After checking in on his slumbering young son (Brogan Hall), he nervously proceeds down the hall towards the source of the unexpected nighttime noises, ultimately coming face to face with a hoodie-clad intruder who turns and shines his flashlight in his face. Scared and semi-blinded, unsure if the intruder is armed, in a moment of panic and confusion he fires. The intruder is dead and Richard’s life is irrevocably changed.
Masterfully laid out and perfectly executed, this opening scene captures the fear, uncertainty and ugliness in such a scenario and grippingly draws the viewer in. And watching the portrayal of the initial aftermath of the shooting is an equally gripping slow burn. Sheriff Ray Price (Nick Damici, who co-wrote the script with Mr. Mickle) is sympathetic but still there are interviews to be conducted, paperwork to be filled out and a body to be removed. After which, the Danes are left to clean up the bloody mess themselves. The Danes also discover it’s no easy task to return to a normal life after something like this when you live in a small town, where everybody knows everybody and nobody’s prone to mind their own business. At this point, the film feels like a slowly paced drama that is going to introspectively examine the aftermath of a possibly justified violent act.
Then Richard discovers that the man he shot, Freddy (Wyatt Russell), is an ex-felon whose father, Ben Russel (Sam Shepard), is also a violent felon and has just been released from prison. When he makes the guilt-driven snap decision to show up at the funeral, he comes face to face with Ben. Another brilliantly executed scene, Ben seems to appear out of nowhere outside Richard’s rolled down car window in the cemetery and proceeds to softspokenly make veiled threats against Ben and his family, his young son in particular. Soon thereafter he makes good, director Mickle adroitly tapping into horror as he appears in the Dane household in the middle of a stormy night, showing shades of De Niro’s Max Cady, leaving bullets scattered on the son’s floor before disappearing into the night. Despite pursuant police protection, it’s not long before Ben is back again and more blood is shed. But with Ben’s arrest it seems that the matter might finally be laid to rest. That is, until Richard makes the discovery that Sheriff Price has been lying to the Danes all along in an effort to cover something up.
It’s at this point in the film that Mickle veered full-speed into B-movie mode and left me behind, cued by the arrival of Jim Bob (Don Johnson), an over-the-top “Texan” private eye/pig farmer with a penchant for Cowboy hats and gaudy western shirts, rolling up in his long red 80’s Cadillac convertible with a set of longhorns mounted on the front grill. Before long, I felt like I was watching some otherworldly HBO-released Dukes of Hazzard/Miami Vice mash-up complete with a brawl featuring an Andre the Giant of a bad-guy that involved a cowboy hat being yanked down around Jim Bob’s ears before the delivery of multiple kicks to multiple set of balls that left me wincing in pain as though I’d been the one kicked and wondering what had happened to the gritty, introspective drama I had just been watching.
From here, Mickle takes his audience on an extended thrill ride (if you’re into such) of multiple plot twists, a muddy narrative path, and too much violence and not enough character development or introspection. You get the Dixie mafia, a snuff-film ring, filicide and a bloody shoot-out of a finale, the details of which I’ll leave out in the name of not revealing too much. And, while visually thrilling, all of it falls completely emotionally flat. And it’s a shame because Shepard and Johnson shine in service of a fatally flawed film, those flaws spectacularly highlighted by the film’s nearly flawless first act.