Cold in July: Sundance Review
Michael C. Hall gets drawn into a web of violence with Sam Shepard and Don Johnson in Jim Mickle's juicy neo-noir, based on the Joe R. Lansdale novel.
A year after delivering one of the genuine surprises of Sundance 2013 with his compellingly nuanced cannibal family feast We Are What We Are, Jim Mickle returns to breathe vigorous new life into the pulpy neo-noir with Cold in July. Adapted by Mickle and his regular screenwriting partner Nick Damici from the 1989 novel by genre-hopping Texan author Joe R. Lansdale, this grisly thriller follows an untainted everyman driven by an unintentional act of violence down an ever-darkening path. Michael C. Hall’s stunned intensity in that role, flanked by wildly enjoyable character turns from Sam Shepard and Don Johnson, should lure a small but appreciative audience with a taste for unconventional action.
From the title font to the 1980s setting to the ominous underlay of Jeff Grace’s obsessive synth score, Mickle appears to be tipping his hat to John Carpenter, though this paradoxically represents a departure from horror for the director. But like Carpenter at his best, Mickle threads a strain of sly humor through the grim movie that functions as a kind of a wink, helping to sell some of the more improbably twisty plot turns and outré developments.
When his wife, Ann (Vinessa Shaw), is awoken one night by a noise in the house, Richard Dane (Hall) loads a revolver and goes to investigate. Startled by the chime of the living room clock, his finger slips on the trigger, putting a bullet through the unarmed intruder’s skull. Overly obliging police lieutenant Ray Price (Damici) advises him that the dead man, Freddy Russell, was a wanted felon, dismissing the killing as self-defense.
Echoing David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, folks in the small Texas town where Richard runs a picture-framing store pat him on the back. But he’s unnerved by his actions, and by the news that Freddy’s father, Ben Russell (Shepard), has just been paroled from Huntsville. In no time, the rugged ex-con starts popping up like Max Cady in Cape Fear, dropping unsubtle hints of the vengeance on his mind and making Richard afraid for his young son in particular.
All this gruesomely suspenseful family-in-peril stuff is aces, accelerating when Ben enters the Danes’ house, scares the hell out of them and then vanishes into the stormy night, evading the cops on surveillance duty. Richard breathes again when Ben is apprehended across the border in Mexico. But a series of unexpected discoveries leads him to question what Price has been telling him, eventually learning that he has served as bait in a much larger cover-up scheme.
Any detailed discussion of what happens from here on in would spoil the nasty fun as the action takes some radical turns. Let’s just say, however, that by a series of plot contrivances, murky motivations and unlikely bargains, Richard ends up forging unexpected allegiances. It doesn’t quite hold water that this formerly mild-mannered Joe Citizen would be drawn of his own volition into life-threatening situations that don’t directly concern him. But Hall -- costumed to look more heavyset than usual, and sporting a mullet and mustache -- lends conviction to the notion that Richard’s unwitting role in a death has triggered something unknowable in his psyche.
Midway through the action, Richard makes the acquaintance of Houston private eye Jim Bob Luke, a recurring character in Lansdale’s books. Played to the hilt by Johnson, this sharp-dressed, smooth-talking cowboy/pig farmer served in Korea with Ben. Watching as the two veteran actors’ contrasting personas lazily ricochet off each oother is among the film’s saltiest pleasures. Johnson is as proud and flashy as Jim Bob’s red convertible, while Shepard’s taciturn tough guy reeks of menace and a hardened heart.
The action gradually crescendos off the rails into an orgy of corruption, sleaze and violence that involves the Dixie Mafia, crooked cops, the witness protection program, a snuff-porn ring and an inevitable bloodbath. As overblown as this becomes, Mickle’s bracing sense of style and cinematographer Ryan Samul’s moody visuals keep it gripping until the final bullet is fired.
Shaw is given nothing much to play and comes across almost abrasively as Richard’s petulant wife, showing little concern for any psychological damage he may have suffered. But it’s perhaps fitting that women have no place in a movie that evolves into a glowering study in violent masculinity.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw, Nick Damici, Wyatt Russell, Brogan Hall, Lanny Flaherty
Production companies: BSM Studio, Belladonna Production, in association with Backup Media, Paradise City
Director: Jim Mickle
Screenwriters: Jim Mickle, Nick Damici, based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale
Producers: Linda Moran, Rene Bastian, Adam Folk, Marie Savare
Executive producers: Jean Baptiste Babin, David Atlan-Jackson, Joel Thibout, Emilie Georges, Nicholas Shumaker, Manuel Chiche, Jack Turner
Director of photography: Ryan Samul
Production designer: Russell Barnes
Music: Jeff Grace
Costume designer: Elisabeth Vastola
Editors: John Paul Horstmann, Jim Mickle
Sales: Memento Films International
No rating, 109 minutes.