Film Review – Cold in July
Cold in July
A couple is awoken one night to the sound of an intruder. The husband grabs a gun and goes to check out the noise while telling his wife to stay put. In a moment sparked by a startling sound and not any aggression, a bullet rings out a finality that will have a rippling effect across several lives. With this, Cold in July starts off on what seems like very familiar ground.
After the body is taken away and the cops start asking questions, we quickly learn that the deceased had family, a father just released from prison. Before time allows for any moving on the father has arrived and we’re suddenly reliving Cape Fear meets Get Carter. It’s the kind of play that allows for a switch on expectations once a plot seems clear. Director Jim Mickle crafts this stylish noir thriller around the conceit of never knowing where we’re going next. Just as one plot seems coherent, we shift gears and start driving down another plot, which then leads to a fork in the road.
Michael C. Hall, best known as TV’s Dexter, turns in a rather subdued performance as Richard Dane, the husband responsible for the bullet that puts things in motion. Dane is clearly affected by his finger’s twitch that ended the intruder’s life. His brooding and sense of responsibility to this unknown father and son dynamic permeates through his demeanor as he shuffles from his job as a picture framer to the police station and back home to his family. When the home invader’s father, Russell (Sam Shepard) shows up, Dane is looking to sweep this thing under the rug, apologize for a situation he didn’t want to happen, and move on so as he can heal himself. But Russell doesn’t see things that way.
Russell presents himself as cold and unmovable, and most certainly looking for revenge. He starts by making comments to Dane about Dane’s family, pointedly about Dane’s son. Before the cops have even finished telling Dane there’s nothing they can do about Russell, Russell is elevating the situation into high gear. Then things turn again. Mickle is using known noir elements to fuse together a wholly changing experience that’s looking to run off of its own perpetual motion. With a wanted poster and a troubling exchange between Dane and the investigating officer, Dane begins to suspect things are not what they seem.
Mickle takes a note from early John Dahl films by nodding in subtle ways to Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, creating a tense, moody environment that is as absorbing in its delivery as it is in its revelry towards cause and effect. There’s a clashing of elements that occurs between the films three leads, which is made possible by the introduction of private investigator Jim Bob, played with the kind of ever increasing swagger that seems to be coming from Don Johnson these days. The plot switch ups don’t stop there though, as Dane, Russell and Jim Bob find themselves on the same path towards answers, that when found will undue things all over again.
The mood is held at a tight, almost claustrophobic level of suspense, where the atmosphere is even more enhanced by the striking, yet moody synths that hearken back to the scores of John Carpenter. Which, with its distinct associations, is both a good and bad thing. At times the score feels noticeably out of place while at the same time is better and more interesting to listen to than a lot of what indie thrillers of this caliber employ. So it becomes a bit of toss up where I’d rather have this than a normal score, but ultimately strikes me as almost ill-fitting in a southern fried style tale of violence and family.
Mickle along with screenwriter Nick Damici, working from the novel by Joe R. Lansdale, are integrating a layering of themes with each plot shift that occurs around Dane. Dane, after affecting change with the first bullet, ends up being pushed away from any agency that’s driving the plot forward, and instead becomes a surrogate lens for the audience. More of a witness observing the rest of the story, Dane decides for his own mental and emotional reasoning, he’s going to see where the mystery leads long after his part has been played.
Tagging along with Russell and Jim Bob, the trio are exposed to an outcome none would’ve imagined, but plays to a line of reasoning that surrounds the thematic ideas of the impact the trail of violence leaves behind. One thing just leads to another thing that is further down that path than the previous threat of terror. As the plot shifts, so does the connectivity to the violence that exists in a world where a person invades another’s home and is in turn killed for it.