Written by Nick Damici and Jim Mickle
Directed by Jim Mickle
In his last film, the horror remake We Are What We Are, co-writer and director Jim Mickle succeeded primarily because he took as long as possible to make explicit what was really going on with the central family unit. There are enough implicit clues as to what they have in their darkened and grim basement or how they sustain themselves, but until the final 15 minutes or so, we don’t know exactly what’s going on. The tension inspired by this deliberate vagueness ended up being equally as powerful as the bloody reveal. The structure of his newest film, Cold in July, makes it so there’s less of this obfuscation. As such, while this film has a bigger and more notable cast, it’s slightly less successful at generating suspense.
In part, that’s because Cold in July treads slightly more familiar ground (even when comparing it to another recent independent film, the far superior Blue Ruin). Here, Michael C. Hall plays Richard Dane, a milquetoast guy living in East Texas in 1989. One night, his wife (Vinessa Shaw) wakes him because she hears an intruder prowling in their living room. Indeed, her ears do not deceive her, and once Richard notices this presumed burglar, he takes his gun and shoots. As he tries to reconcile this murder, even though it’s justified via self-defense, he finds himself the target of revenge by the dead man’s father, Ben (Sam Shepard). Richard becomes legitimately concerned for his family’s well-being, and just as he gets them out of harm’s way, he finds that…well, the inciting murder may not have been as clear-cut as he’d originally figured.
To speak in greater detail about Richard’s revelation—as well as why a good-‘ol-boy detective played by Don Johnson factors in—would be to ruin the major twist of Cold in July. (Anyone who’s read the Joe R. Lansdale novel the film adapts will already know the surprise.) However, the dynamic shift from the first 30 minutes, where Richard desperately attempts to gain the higher ground against Ben, to the final hour, where he ends up taking part in a strange alliance with that grizzled older gentleman, doesn’t end up causing nearly enough of a shakeup to make Cold in July an unexpected delight. Again, if you compare this indie film that comments on the very notion of revenge in the backwoods of America to Blue Ruin, it becomes a bit too clear that this film’s stumbling block is its cast. The great advantage to Blue Ruin is that its leading actor, Macon Blair, is, for all intents and purposes, an unknown. In Cold in July, however, our protagonist is played by someone best known for his work on cable as a sociopathic serial killer. It’s not that Michael C. Hall is bad here; he’s fine, doing exactly what would be expected of him. He looks suitably desperate throughout the picture, but his unavoidable familiarity as an actor makes his work here a bit more challenging. Hall can be an Everyman; Blair, in a slightly similar role, doesn’t have to become one. He is one.
The rest of the cast—specifically Shepard and Johnson—are equally fine, doing what’s expected of them. Shepard, particularly, stands out because he’s been called upon for nastier roles less and less as of late. Johnson, in a role that sometimes doesn’t seem too terribly far from his recent, very funny work on the departed sitcom Eastbound and Down, brings some levity to the proceedings. The tenuous connection this trio approaches by the end of Cold in July is the most interesting thread, far more so than the actual revenge at hand. This, in effect, is the major issue with the otherwise decent film: its take on revenge doesn’t seem nearly so vital or singular when compared with a smaller picture like Blue Ruin. By itself, Cold in July is another patient and well-composed film from Jim Mickle, and is enough to inspire interest in whatever project he tackles next. But in a genre typified by the ability to generate tension, it’s a bit too cool to be truly successful.
— Josh Spiegel