Editor’s note: Our review of Cold In July originally ran during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in limited theatrical release.
Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) awakens one night to a noise elsewhere in the house. Fearing an intruder, he retrieves a gun from the closet, tells his wife to stay put, and cautiously moves towards the living room. Seconds later, a young burglar’s deceased body falls onto the couch with a bullet through the eye. The town sees Dane as a hero, and the sheriff covers up the fact that the burglar was unarmed, but the quiet family man is left unsettled by the incident.
Complicating things further is the recent parole of the dead man’s father, Russel (Sam Shepard). Dane attends the funeral from a distance but is surprised by a face to face encounter with Russel that makes it clear the man is not the forgiving type. When Russel makes the threat that much clearer with a frightening visit to Dane’s home it becomes clear the two men are in for an unavoidable collision.
And then the story moves in an entirely new and unexpected direction.
“Bang! You dead.”
Any film featuring the John Carpenter-style opening credit font is automatically on my good side, and while Cold In July doesn’t fully live up to that promise it remains an engaging and twisty little thriller. Set in the late ’80s, director Jim Mickle‘s film feels at home as a bit of a throwback. Low-fi thrills, a catchy synth score, and a deceptively simple setup help this unassuming movie entertain, but despite a couple lively performances the film feels too flat too frequently.
The first act feels conventional at first, but Mickle’s script (co-written with Nick Damici and based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale) finds some fresh turns as the story moves into unexpected areas. The shift brings some new characters with it including a private eye named Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson) who single-handedly breathes life and sunshine into the otherwise dreary tale. It’s an accomplishment as the film touches upon some truly dark material that would feel at home in the vile world of Joel Schumacher’s 8MM.
Hall’s first role since the end of Dexter sees him once again playing a killer, but the difference here is that he’s reluctant in his actions. It’s an appreciated change, but if I’m being completely honest the mullet he sports throughout the film distracts from the quality of his work. It’s mesmerizing in its awfulness. That said, even if the less shallow among you can get past that abomination you’re still left with a performance that echoes Dexter’s emotionless, surface-level role-playing far too closely. Hall can act, just watch any episode of Six Feet Under for confirmation, but he may need some time to emerge from the shadow of playing a hollow sociopath for so long. His concerns as a family man seeking answers and safety feel far from affecting or convincing.
By contrast, Shepard and Johnson are both knock-outs. The former has been delivering fine supporting performances for years now, but while the majority of them have seen him playing exclusively tough and weathered he’s allowed some real humanity here (in addition to being tough and weathered). Johnson meanwhile continues his recent upswing as the sunniest and most charismatic Southerner since his turn in Django Unchained. The characters are different, but they share a drawl, a smile, and the capacity for doing dark deeds.
Mickle has shown steady growth across his for films, finding better visuals and performances along the way, and Cold In July continues that trend. Where it suffers though is in its lack of fire or spark, an affliction shared by his last two films, We Are What We Are and Stakeland. The film often seems far too even keeled even as we should be gripping the armrest in anticipation or reaction, and action scenes are technically well-crafted but as flat as the lead character.
Luckily though, and similarly to Mickle’s earlier work, there are other strengths to balance things out a bit. The emotion and energy created by Shepard and Johnson, respectively, combine with a script that offers real surprises absent from far too many Hollywood productions, and together they’re enough to make Cold In July engaging enough.
The Upside: Script takes an unexpected turn part way through; Sam Shepard and Don Johnson; Michael C. Hall’s hair
The Downside: Lacks energy when needed most; Michael C. Hall’s hair
On the Side: The character of Jim Bob is a recurring presence in Joe Lansdale’s fiction. Don Johnson should be the only actor allowed to play him going forward.