Indie auteur Jim Mickle (We Are What We Are) has said that his newest effort Cold in July is a combination of Bong Joon-Ho’s serial-murder thriller Memories of Murder and the Patrick Swayze action film Road House. That’s an eye-catching pairing, for certain, but it’s unfortunate that Cold in July doesn’t live up to the promise of such a wild mash-up.
Dexter’s Michael C. Hall plays Richard Dane, who encounters an intruder in his house late one night in 1989 and shoots him dead. Almost everyone, from the law to Dane’s neighbors, thinks this a clear case of a good guy successfully drawing down on a bad guy. The only exception is the father of the deceased, an ex-con played by an appropriately terrifying Sam Shepard, who is soon making threats against the Dane family.
Unless one has already read the source material, a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, one might be expecting a Cape Fear-style revenge thriller. Perhaps there would even be messages surrounding the political and social issues around the current debate about so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws. That’s not at all what results. Instead, the Road House aspect of the film really kicks in, as Richard’s attempts to send away the pulpy monster lead him to uncover a hidden plot that is even pulpier and more monstrous.
Cold In July is technically proficient and, if one can get past Hall’s awkward Texas accent and amusing mullet haircut, well-acted. Everyone, even Vinessa Shaw in a rather thankless role as Richard’s wife, has the right idea of what they need to be giving in every scene. The characterization of Richard Dale as a barely competent gunman who wears the hero label poorly is reminiscent of the terrific film Blue Ruin, and it is a decision which has a positive effect on this film just as it did in that one.
However, the one obstacle that Mickle can’t overcome is that the two films which supposedly influenced him the most are completely at odds with each other. Memories of Murder is a morally ambiguous police procedural, where the truth is never completely clear and the nature (or existence) of evil is always in doubt. That’s all fine, and it does translate to the world of Cold In July; Shepard’s last line in particular introduces a level of moral doubt that is particularly unsettling given the mayhem previously displayed.
But the pulpy, shit-kicking world of a film like Road House leaves no room for moral ambiguity. The good guys are the good guys and the bad guys are the bad guys, and all that’s left is to see how many throats get ripped out. Cold In July is certainly violent enough to live up to that reputation, and a private eye played by Don Johnson is a character just sleazy enough to have walked in from the Road House set. But Hall is no Swayze, neither is anyone else in the film, and as such there is no moral center from which Mickle could assert a Road House-ian adventure story.
The end result is that the audience is left hanging in a number of ways that they should not be. A development which a film like Memories of Murder or No Country For Old Men would call an existential meditation on the fact that there are no easy answers in life, a film like Road House calls a hanging plot thread. There’s simply no getting around the fact that the film’s twist revolves a
round Richard asking himself a fundamental question that is never answered, or even addressed again after it was first asked. There’s no getting around the fact that Don Johnson’s character is basically a convenient exposition machine that a film aspiring to Memories of Murder’s level of art should never tolerate.
Rather like Road House, Cold in July may grow in the audience’s estimation once it’s available to watch at home. For Road House, it was HBO, today it’s Netflix or some other streaming service, but in either case there exists a way to see something on your TV that doesn’t quite impress as a movie, but which outdoes any network program in terms of gore, brutality, and downright meanness. Cold In July tries to mash up two things which might have been better kept separate, but the end result will explode off of a small screen.