There’s a deliciously slippery quality to Cold In July, a neo-noir thriller from director Jim Mickle (Stake Land, We Are What We Are). Set in late-80s east Texas, Mickle’s movie contains distinct shades of such films as Blood Simple, Red Rock West and Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear remake, but at the same time, flatly refuses to cleave to genre expectations.
Dexter’s Michael C Hall stars as Richard, a quiet, mild-mannered family man who shoots an intruder in his living room one sultry summer night. Shaken to the core by the experience, Richard’s once humdrum life is disrupted further by the appearance of the intruder’s father, Russel (Sam Shepard), who manages to lace even the most softly-spoken utterance with a thread of barely-concealed menace.
What begins as a moody, minimalist collision of Cape Fear and David Cronenberg’s small town thriller A History Of Violence soon metamorphoses into something else entirely. Twist follows twist until the film’s mid-point, when Don Johnson’s swaggering pig farmer and private eye Jim Bob thunders into town in a lipstick red convertible to throw the story through a loop.
Like Blue Ruin earlier this year, Cold In July engages because its protagonist isn’t a stock character from the big book of thriller cliches. In a genre typically filled with rugged men like Ben and Jim Bob, Richard’s about as macho as a bicycle with a basket on the front, and Michael C Hall superbly embodies a man who’s slow to awaken to his latent killer instinct.
Adapting Joe R Lansdale’s novel of the same name, Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici (the latter also playing a personable sheriff named Ray) clearly enjoy the process of throwing an average, gentle man into a dangerous, macho world he can barely comprehend. And as Richard learns more about Ben and Jim Bob, he too begins to subtly change – whether that change is for better or worse is left to the audience to decide.
The uniformly excellent cast brings charisma and subtlety to Cold In July’s drama, and the film’s all the stronger for letting each actor suggest what their character’s thinking or planning through their body language rather than slabs of exposition. Cinematographer Ryan Samul plays a key role here, helping Mickle build up a believably grimy 80s world of top-loading video recorders, big hair and even bigger station wagons – his use of colour, light and shade might recall the work of John Dahl or the Coen brothers, but it also carries the hyper-real quality of directors like Mario Bava or Dario Argento.
Some of the best scenes are non-verbal: the superbly lit and edited opening, where Michael C Hall, shiny-eyed with fear, discovers the lurker in his home. Then there’s the immediate aftermath, where Richard and his wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) silently scrub their gore-spattered living room in a doomed attempt to excise the incident from their memories. There’s an air of the mundane in these scenes, but also something else at play under the surface – a sense of foreboding and anticipation, like the crackle in the air before a storm.
Killing and grey areas of morality are common fodder for thriller writers, yet Mickle successfully gets under the skin of a familiar subject, exploring the psychological impact of Richard’s actions as well as the deadly ripple of interconnected incidents it triggers.
Those incidents are unpredictable and increasingly dark, as the story lurches from place to place and even genre to genre; Mickle steps outside the realms horror here, yet he still brings a horror-like dread to certain moments, all underscored by Jeff Grace’s wonderfully retro, seedy and John Carpenter-like score.
The seemingly effortless gravity of Sam Shepard and Don Johnson’s performances is joined by a wry and welcome injection of black humour, particularly as the story switches gear after the mid-point: Johnson riffs gamely on his sex symbol status, and gets into flailing altercations with anyone foolish enough to put a scratch on his beloved convertible – irrespective of how hulking and formidable they might be.
Admittedly, it’s here, after the mid-point, that Cold In July falters slightly, with the actions of some characters lacking the water-tight logic of the first half and at one plot thread left naggingly unresolved. But this is a small price to pay for a film that so successfully sustains its suspense, even as its tone shifts wildly from 70s post-Nixon-era paranoia to 80s bromantic violence.
Visually and dramatically, Cold In July manages to surprise and entertain from its blue-hued opening to the crimson final stretch.
Cold In July is out in UK cinemas on the 27th June.
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