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Friday (neo) Noir: ‘Cold in July’ is a sharply focused film sporting many faces

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Cold In July

Written by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici

Directed by Jim Mickle

U.S.A., 2014

Set in a small Texas town, Cold in July opens with a bang in more ways than one. Family man Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) awakens one night in bed, convinced that an intruder has infiltrated his home. After fetching his pistol he creeps into the living room, is confronted face to face by the thug and shoots in him cold blood. The event transfixes Richard into a whirlpool of conflicting emotions as some people, including officer Ray Price (Nick Damici), claim he did the right and only thing he could do whereas Richard mulls over the avoidable loss of life. Far from over, Richard’s problems are accentuated when the apparent father of the departed, recently released career criminal Ben Russell (Sam Shepard), arrives in town and starts to threaten Richard and his family. What neither rival is aware of at first is that both parties are being played for fools in a scheme much grander and sedier than they’ve imagined. Enter private eye Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson) to help to get to the bottom of the seedy business.

Cold in July is the sort of film that is extremely dependent on the quality of the writing, the confidence with which it presents the issues and themes it seeks to tackle and the ease with which it juggles a great many turning points, each helping said themes to fully blossom. It goes without saying that the direction and acting, to name but a few other quintessential factors, are very important for this or any film’s success. In both regards the picture is in tip top shape for the most part, but Cold in July’s greatest strength lies in its bold script, co-written by Nick Damici and director Jim Mickle.

Rather than make a single plot thread the focal point of the dark and twisted misadventure Richard and Ben set course on, the film offers a myriad of miniature episodes, each building off the previous one, further entrenching the protagonists in an underworld they never dreamed of setting their sorry sights on. In essence, Mickle and Damici successfully and boldly reinvent the film on numerous occasions, shedding new light on information neither Richard nor Ben were privy to beforehand, surprising both the duo (and eventually trio once Don Johnson enters the fray) of dubiously compatible characters as well as the audience. The best part is it never feels as if the film is pulling the rug under everyone’s feet for the mere sake of churning cheap surprises. Instead, the odd turn of events force the protagonists to continuously re-evaluate their situation and, however difficult it may be, learn to work together. The plot’s curvy trajectory is organically handled and serves actual purpose for story, theme and character.

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As the movie’s morbid end game begins to rear its head it becomes clear that Cold in July is keenly interested in depicting the value people put on family ties. What they mean to one person may not be reflected in another’s person’s feelings on the same topic. More to the point, director Mickle challenges the notion that one would do anything for a family member. Under most circumstances it is true that a father, a mother, a brother, a sister and the like is willing to go to important lengths to be supportive or help a loved one out of a jam. As with all rules however there are exceptions. Said exceptions are extreme cases, granted, but they certainly exist and one person’s threshold against renouncing a family member is the very extreme Cold in July courageously explores. This again is in line with the film’s desire to do things differently, to have the audience expect the unexpected because real life is like that.

Enhancing the experience are three perfectly calibrated performances from Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson. Each breathes life into distinctive personalities that play off of one another in ways that few other ensemble projects can lay claim to. Hall, the de facto lead actor, acutely taps into the emotions and psyche of a man so deeply confronted by mixed emotions after killing even if it was to protect his family that he becomes a willing player in helping his aggressor, in this case Ben Russell, when the latter finds himself in a sticky situation they may not be of his own doing. His character realistically lacks the experience to embark on such a journey but demonstrating impressive courage all the same, the courage to himself in the line of fire and the courage to open up to a man who only days ago was viewed as a villain. Don Johnson is nowhere to be seen in the picture’s first half, although his inclusion lights almost every scene afterwards up like fireworks. Lively, witty, industrious and intelligent, Jim Bob is as grounded a performance from Johnson as it is wholeheartedly entertaining.

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Perhaps the strongest performance is courtesy of Sam Shepard as Ben Russell. The troubled figure is imbued with a sense of anger, bitterness but also a remarkable sense of control. He is by no means an ravaging ne’er do well or a low life hooligan. Sam Shepard lends Ben Russell a fierce resolve as opposed to just fierceness. He is as dangerous for his knowledge of how to cause damage as his resolute focus on achieving his goals. In the latter stages Shepard subtly shows his character’s more emotionally rich side as he is forced to come to terms with a grave truth, the repercussions of which drastically change the course of the story. Even in such moments Shepard never gives in to showmanship, hinting at a swell of emotions rather making them loud and clear.

Cold in July carves itself a unique place in modern cinema. Multifaceted in some of the most surprising ways, its ability to spread its themes and story as wide as it does and as effectively as it does makes includes it in the category of most original films to emerge out of the American film scene in some time.

-Edgar Chaput


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