Cold in July, from director Jim Mickle and starring Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, and Sam Shepard is an unexpected pleasure. Alright, perhaps “unexpected” isn’t the right word since fans of Joe R. Lansdale’s prose might have a better idea of what to expect going in than some viewers. But as someone only casually familiar with the genre master’s output, and never having read the novel it was based on, Cold in July was positively full of surprises.
Opening in East Texas in 1989, the movieintroduces us to Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall), a framer and family man, who awakens to find an intruder in his home. He investigates, gun in hand, surprises the burglar, and in a startled moment of confusion, his gun goes off, killing the intruder, who conveniently turns out to be a wanted felon. Simple enough, especially in Texas, a state that takes a fairly relaxed attitude towards circumstances like this.
This act of violence takes place in the opening minutes of the movie, and it doesn’t shy away from as many of the consequences as it can possibly show: from the clean-up (which is left to the homeowners, in case you were ever wondering about who scrapes the bits of brains off the walls), to the repairs, to Dane’s jitters and attacks of conscience. It’s a nice counterpoint to Hall’s remorseless Dexter Morgan. For the first 15 minutes or so, watching Michael C. Hall (complete with shitkicker mustache and mullet) sweat and stammer his way through his daily life, nearly crippled by the weight of what he has done, gives the impression that Cold in July (like Prisoners) is an exploration of the consequences of violence on the common man. A reasonable assumption, right?
The problems begin when the dead man’s father (Sam Shepard), a career criminal, gets out of prison, and he’s not too thrilled about the fate of his son. Ah, the viewer will say, it’s a revenge movie. Sam Shepard is going to terrorize the holy hell out of this man, his wife, and their son to get even for the loss of his own. And that’s how it starts to play out, like an East Texas Cape Fear…until it isn’t.
Once Don Johnson shows up as Lansdale stalwart Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson, who gets the greatest entrance in all of cinema so far this year), that’s when the movie takes a hard left turn for the weird. If it sounds like I’ve been giving away too much of the plot, this is all confined to about the first 20 minutes or so. It’s the next hour and change that ramp up the crazy. There’s still plenty of tension to be had, it’s just, to quote the Buzzcocks, “a different kind of tension.” All of this is accentuated with moody cinematography that invokes a muggy summer night and Jeff Grace’s minimalist score that recalls the kind of synth-heavy creep-outs one usually associates with early John Carpenter flicks.
Amidst all the pulpy, gritty fun, the occasional problem still rears its head. The final battle and the lead up to it may work as a slow boil on the printed page, it doesn’t quite add up, here. The film’s early refusal to adhere to genre convention is thrown into stark relief by the gleeful violence of the film’s final act, which is delivered with as much punch and gore as possible, while not necessarily chasing the kinds of flash that a Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino would find so irresistible in a movie like this (despite the prominent inclusion of could be ironic but actually might not be ridiculous hair metal power ballad “Wait” by Steelheart).
These are minor complaints for a film that is such a smart ride from start to finish (Sam Shepard is, as expected, terrific, and Don Johnson has an infectiously grand time as Jim Bob). Cold in July is tightly paced, boasts a surprising sense of humor, and is as entertaining as can be. Jim Mickle has come a long way since Mulberry St., and hopefully it won’t be the last time he collaborates with Mr. Lansdale. If nothing else, we need to see Don Johnson step into Jim Bob Luke’s boots again.