Fantasia 2014: ‘Cold in July’ is one of the year’s finest
Cold in July
Written for the screen by Nick Damici and Jim Mickle
Directed by Jim Mickle
Fans of pulp fiction will get a kick out of Cold in July, a gritty, at times bloody, and darkly funny crime yarn directed by provocateur Jim Mickle (Mulberry Street, Stake Land). This rigid and enthralling Texas thriller is one the most hyperbolic and stylish crime yarns in years. Think Drive, but with a better cast,a better script, and a sense of humour as sharp as a knife
Mickle’s violent black comedy stars Michael C. Hall as Richard Dane, a suburban family man who has a small-town framing shop, a beautiful wife and son, and a gun hidden away in the house which he should have no business owning. The opening scene gets the plot moving fairly quickly as he confronts and then fatally shoots a burglar who’s broken into his home. The local sheriff who investigates the shooting writes it off as self-defense, but unfortunately for Richard, the victim’s father, Ben Russel (Sam Shepard), is an ex-con out on parole. After learning his son was shot and killed, Russel returns to the east Texas town and starts terrorizing Dane’s family. To say more would be giving away the various twists and turns. Needless to say, the plot thickens as Richard finds himself facing off against the Dixie mafia when accidentally stumbling upon a snuff-film ring. Before you know it, you’re watching another sort of movie altogether. And as you’d expect, it ends with a bloodbath.
Cold in July shares some connective tissue with David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, in which a mannered man becomes a local hero of sorts through an act of violence, which sets off repercussions that endanger the lives of his family. Cold in July is far from sedate; it contains moments of sharp, graphic violence and there is a body count that lovers of gritty filmmaking will defend as art. But the strength of the movie lies in its psychological complexity and depth. Based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, the script, written by Mickle and his frequent collaborator Nick Damici (who also plays the sheriff), examines the harsh realities of family and responsibility, the ramifications of guilt, the dynamics of fear, and the decline of the American heartland. While it loses some of its steam in the middle stretch, the final act is a needle-punch of adrenaline to the heart.
Mickle borrows a lot, but he borrows from the best. Cold in July is at times reminiscent of early 90’s indie-crime films such as The Last Seduction, Romeo is Bleeding, and Fargo. You’ll also be reminded of work by Walter Hill, William Lustig, and especially John Carpenter. In fact, the movie’s indebtedness to Carpenter is apparent from the very start: the minimalist, hard-driving synthesizer score by composer Jeff Grace (which kicks in under the opening credits) and the sleek, richly textured widescreen visuals make Cold in July one of the best sounding and looking films of 2014. Regular Mickle cinematographer Ryan Samul gives the film an especially striking look, and his moody visuals keep it gripping until the final bloody finish.
And than there is the cast. What makes this film noir so enjoyable is its three outstanding performances. Dexter star Michael C. Hall is virtually unrecognizable as Richard Dane, sporting a mullet and thick moustache. His performance is solid as the lead, an everyman hero who’s put in a dangerous situation and must find the courage to get himself out. Meanwhile, longtime actor and playwright Sam Shepard plays an important role in shaping the movie’s tone and thematic content. Once he appears onscreen, Cold in July turns into a different movie — a better one, in fact — and Shepard turns in his best performance since he played pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff way back in 1983. Mickle introduces Russel as a towering presence, whose dialogue pushes hard-boiled cliches you’ll want to quote again and again. His performance is so strong in the first act that many critics have already compared his character to Max Cady in Cape Fear. Unlikely alliances are a common motif in film noir, and the two men take on a third partner when Russel recruits his old war buddy Jim Bob (delightfully underplayed by Don Johnson). Johnson’s smooth-talking pig farmer and private detective, who favors outrageous cowboy outfits and rides a hot-red Cadillac convertible with a pair of longhorns attached to its hood, is a blast to watch. The Miami Vice star makes the character of Jim Bob more than a stereotype, revealing hints of compassion along the way, yet always finding time to lighten the mood with some much needed dark humour.
Cold in July opens as what first appears to be a generic thriller, but quickly slithers off into unexpected dark territory. It is a brutal, beautifully shot movie that starts out as about revenge but then becomes about a group of men wrestling with the dark underbelly of late ’80s suburbia. Intense and funny in parts, Cold in July further solidifies Jim Mickle’s reputation as one of the best genre directors working today.
— Ricky D
Cold in July had its Quebec premiere as part of Fantasia. Please visit the official website of the Fantasia International Film Festival.