Cold in July -- a Film Review
Directed by Jim Mickle, written by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici
Starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Nick Damici. Based on the cult novel Cold in July by Joe R. Lansdale
American crime drama Cold in July begins with an earnest family man, Richard Dane (Philip C. Hall, so beloved from TV’s "Six Feet Under", and especially blood-splatter analyst, "Dexter"), shooting a home intruder in the middle of the night.
It’s 1989; Dane sports a modified mullet, and wears ugly ties with his short-sleeved patterned sport shirts. His lovely wife, Ann (Vinessa Shaw), and young son are his responsibility, but it is something he has never before been challenged to defend. His fingers shake as he retrieves his gun from the closet and loads it. He clocks shambling, mysterious “Frederick Russell” with one shot, ruining the wall, couch and nondescript painting behind his exploded head.
In ensuing days, Dane and Ann become the objects of local curiosity and scrutiny in their West Texas town, though one would think he’d be something of a local hero. Broody Dane becomes more and more frightened and protective of his threatened family, but to the movie’s credit, the audience does not see where this is all going. There is a careful hunt for what really is going down, first by Dane, then joined by others. The police are unhelpful.
At Dane’s insistence and with the spooky appearance of the dead man’s con-man father, just released from a long jail hitch, in close proximity to the Dane family, the local police manage to take reports from Dane and his wife, teacher Ann. No one can explain, however, why the shot man was in Dane’s home, nor why the family is now being stalked by Ben Russell, grizzled, taciturn but compelling Sam Shepard, whose menace comes from stillness and inner-Zen threat. Shepard smiles down at Dane in his car at the cemetery, and you feel the chill.
Eventually, riding up to capture or bust the avenging, elder Russell, a pernicious presence wherever Dane goes, Jim Bob (a homey gunslinger gumshoe, courtesy of Don Johnson) joins the edgy tracking and trapping effort. Turns out the house intruder shot by Dane is not so clear-cut a figure as everyone seemed to assume. The role of the stalking intruder’s father shifts, and now the three principals are searching for who, or what, the original dead man represented. The police are still no help.
The obvious link might be to parallels in Peckinpah’s relentless, hemoglobin-drenched Straw Dogs (1971), but only so far. Lifting the film from merely a taut suspenser to a knuckle-whitener is Hall’s strong anxiety and palpable discomfort as a workaday guy -- he runs a picture framing business -- with no special axe to grind, get-along/go-along, but all too aware of his sudden, unasked-for semi-notoriety. Also involving is Shepard’s laconic but intriguing avenging icon. Shepard is too rarely seen, and adds immeasurably to the action. Adventitious, cheeky humor comes in with Don Johnson, sort of a latter-day Matthew McConaughey. The police, initially dismissive, are actively obstructive.
Bringing the temperature really down, however, is the abrupt ending, which seems tacked on with haste and too little thought. When you have a moment to think about the plot threads, you come up short. Why are the bad guys, really, doing what they are doing with such nasty dedication? The plotlines diversify into subplots that may be plausible, but seem not to be. There are still too many ends not tied up, so the satisfaction deriving from the terrific perfs by the protagonists settles into a bunch of Buts…? and Whys…?
Overall, the film keeps you guessing (even after the credits), and is probably worth a visit, if only because Hall, Shepard, Vinessa Shaw, and Johnson so believably inhabit their characters -- if you can deal with incompletely answered key narrative plot elements. There’s not even a particular explanation for the title.
Maybe there’s going to be a sequel. Call it Lukewarm in August. Or Hot in December?