Cold in July (2014)

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It’s all well and good throwing a whole shopping list of ideas into the basket but there comes a point where a little bit of focus is needed. Jim Mickle’s rush to stuff Cold in July full of different genre approaches, while admirable in ambition, is less so in final form. With a mix of suspense, corruption and lurid bloodletting orgies, it gradually disintegrates under the strain of repeated personality shifts.

Everything starts so promisingly in muggy Texas, around a heat stained small town covered in the grime of the 1980s. Waking up to strange sounds in his small house, a confused and panicky Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) slips on the trigger and ends the life of a masked intruder in his family home. This ordinary man, the owner of a portrait framing shop in town, soon finds himself hunted down by the assailant’s father Ben Russell (Sam Shepard), a softly spoken ex-con who oozes understated malice.

So far, so snugly conventional. Within the tight confines initially established, Mickle ratchets up the tension as Ben starts to cast hints about Richard’s child, even turning up outside the school. Hall makes for a convincing everyman, a working stiff not accustomed to having to mop blood off his pictures and scrub out the sofa with his wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw). He even gets frustrated with callous locals who praise him for gunning down the stranger. Alongside this, Shepard’s stoical suffering, his firm conviction that he has to enact retribution, makes an interesting counterpoint.

Marshalling his forces, Mickle brings together an early highpoint as the police stake out Richard’s house to try and prevent Ben making good on his implied threats. As the officers wait in the treeline, the slightest hint of headlights down the road or a change in the wind outside elicits shivers. And then it all goes haywire. The second act abandons this tight set-up, the cops suddenly emerging as the corrupt villains of the piece. Then before this can develop, it veers off in another odd direction, Richard teaming up with Ben and his friend – flamboyant part-time PI, part-time farmer Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson) – to break up a little crime ring vigilante style, complete with buckets of blood and unnecessary slow-motion.

Ben’s redemption alone is a U-turn worthy of an impressively duplicitous politician. Twirling on a sixpence, he goes from creepy villain to a man driven by moral fervour determined to right the wrongs of the world. Richard’s not much better having to move through timid accidental murderer to gun wielding protector of the masses in the time it takes to listen to Jim’s crude jokes. The three leads at least make a good fist of it but the plot is too overburdened. It’s really a trio of films welded awkwardly into a vehicle that can barely hold together long enough to get out the driveway.

Cold in July bursts with self-confident style, a pulp thriller overjoyed to bathe in the murky waters of southern US crime. Somewhere along the way though it loses its head. As a suspense thriller verging on psychological horror it’s rather good. As a tale of police corruption and violent vigilantism, less so. As all three, it’s little more than a bloated and confused mess.

Cold in July is in cinemas 27th June 2014.

DIRECTOR: JIM MICKLE
WRITER: NICK DAMICI, JIM MICKLE (BASED ON A NOVEL BY JOE R. LANSDALE)
STARS: MICHAEL C. HALL, SAM SHEPARD, DON JOHNSON, NICK DAMICI, VINESSA SHAW, WYATT RUSSELL
RUNTIME: 109 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: USA/FRANCE

Film Rating: ★★½☆☆

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