If you have seen the trailer for Cold in July (which you can watch below), then you’d forgiven for thinking this is a film akin to David Cronenburg’s A History of Violence. A familiar narrative of normal good man, who, because of events that conspire against him has to embrace his more primal instincts and turn into a potent killer. The trailer features plenty of jazzy editing with gunshots but ultimately this betrays the essence of this film, that the lead character is not violent yet finds himself lured to the murky and seedy underbelly of society. Indeed, Michael C Hall’s character doesn’t embark on a metamorphosis into a killing machine. There is only one action set piece during the film which is milked during the trailer. Therefore if you were expecting a high octane action flick then you’d be disappointed, instead this film is a complex thriller that warrants a great deal of patience before its explosive denouement.
The film is based upon a 1989 novel by Joe R Lansdale and immediately draws similarities with the gritty Texan-Noir of Elmore Leonard’s finest works. Opening with a tense burglary in the Dane household, the audience immediately recognise that Richard Dane (Michael C Hall) is a normal man; his hand shakes as he loads his revolver, he abhors violence but it forced to confront a burglar and make a split-second decision to protect his family. His face contorts with disgust when he switches on the light to see the aftermath of his action. And then a rather macabre sequence where the couple clean the sofa and the mirror that bear the gory residue of Richard’s decision.
Then we are introduced to Bob Russell (Sam Shepard) a grisly ex-con who in believing his son was shot by Dane, psychologically terrorises the Dane household. The film here stumbles and clumsily reveals that, it wasn’t Russell’s son whom Dane shot and both men partner up to find Russell’s real son. There’s a police corruption subplot that is never fully explained nor revisited and is too obviously a plot device to throw Richard and Russell together. Russell then enlists the help of Jim Bob Luke, a friend and private investigator. He is played with relish by Don Johnson, who takes Southern swagger to another level. Arriving in understated fashion, revving up to Dane’s carpet store in a red convertible bearing the number plate ‘Red B*tch’. He is an enigmatic screen presence and whose backstory could itself make for a watchable TV series or film.
Then we are taken to Jim Bob’s farm, where there is a brutal revelation that is genuinely shocking and completely caught me off guard. Richard and Jim Bob’s reaction to this is incredibly human, going through a range of emotions before our eyes before eventually settling on dismay and anger. Richard leaves upon knowing Russell wishes to kill ‘put down’ his son whom he compares to a rabid dog. Something however lures Richard back, even to the point where he uncharacteristically deceives his wife to return to Jim Bob and Russell. Hall’s performance is powerful, as a man who cannot shake his curiosity, who feels invigorated by this new adventure and quest which is so out of keeping with his ordinary mundane life. The intensity of the final stanza is in stark contrast to the relatively sedate opening half hour, Richard far from being a seasoned killer, still very much out of his depth. Cold in July does require patience and there is a sense that the director is making up for lost time in the final shootout, which is fast paced, tense and violent.
Despite sometimes wishing Jim Bob had more screen time. Cold in July is a brilliant understated film. There is a bright future for director Jim Mickle who at 35 and 4 films into his directing career, is still a relative newbie. Furthermore, Mickle got the very best from his cast, especially in Michael C Hall. Although his performance is at times frustratingly sedate, pulls of exquisitely the inner torment and turmoil of a man wrangled with guilt but also of a man who is completely drawn to a dangerous and alien world he doesn’t fully comprehend. The final action set piece was shot expertly but it’s clear that his greatest strength is creating tense, taut environments and atmospheres, which incidentally suited this slow building film perfectly. Definitely worth checking out.