Writers Nick Damici and Jim Mickle (who directs) bring us a seemingly strange hybrid of moods and genres in the engrossing thriller Cold in July. Despite the tectonic shifts in the narrative and style, each character’s innate moral compass leads them into a maelstrom of seeking justice out of darkness.
Set in 1989, Richard (Michael C. Hall) is awoken by his wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) during a home invasion. Fearful for the family, especially his young son Jordan he grabs his gun and confronts the thief. In a moment of panic he pulls the trigger and kills the burglar. He’s told that the man he took down was not only a convicted felon, but the son of a convicted felon (Sam Shepard), who is out on parole. Russel (Shepard), devastated by his son’s murder begins to torment Richard and his family. In a strange turn of events Russel is apprehended and left for dead. Richard makes the choice to save Russel and start digging into the events that set them on a collision course.
Writers Damici and Mickle get to explore several genres at once with Cold in July. The beginning of a film is a cold, almost supernatural thriller. Home invasion, self-defence shooting and the subsequent plague of Russel plays like a haunting. Once Richard rescues Russel from a mortal situation it evokes the feeling of a kidnapping film, with the exception that the kidnapper (Richard) handles his captive (Russel) like he’s handling a viper. As Jim Bob (Don Johnson) enters proceedings it becomes a southern noir. Damici and Mickle anchor the narrative trajectory to their characters’ identifiable moral codes. For Richard it’s more measured, pragmatic sense of right, for Russel it is a kind of primitive ‘eye for an eye’ moral currency and finally, despite being an outward capitalist it’s Jim Bob’s word that denotes value.
Mickle’s directorial style adjusts for the different segments of the feature. Shepard is shot to look like towering giant, casting a shadow over Richard’s life. The setting; grizzled, earth covered backwater cabins and low lying fog that amplifies the light to a blinding glare; only serves to enhance the polarity of the situation. Mickle feels like he’s modelled his depiction of violence somewhere between Goodfellas and Straw Dogs; stylish but bone crunching. The gusts of synthesised John Carpenter influenced score foreshadow action that’s about to come, or reinforce the tempo of activity.
Hall is a tremendous acting talent. It’s so wonderful to see him shed all traces of Dexter; assertion, apathy, steadiness; from his characterisation of Richard. He’s able to explore a man whose nerves make his hands shake, whose mind is disturbed by dark recesses of his imagination and finally a man who is beguiled by his morality. Shepard’s Russel is a stone cold killer. He’s got an unearthly resolve to avenge his son and begins to haunt Richard’s life like a demon. As the revelations tumble in and he commits to taking justice into his own hands he becomes less a character and more like a reaper. Finally Johnson’s late 80s private detective Jim Bob is just an absolute treat to watch. Johnson is built to play this role after decades of Miami Vice and Nash Bridges. He’s got a swagger and bravado that allows him to charm your pants off while being a total scoundrel. Everything from his hat to his 80s mobile phone just screams excess. There’s also a weird synergy between the trio of characters Richard, Russel and Jim Bob that harkens back to the great male movie trios: Han, Luke and Obi Wan or Quint, Brodie and Hooper.
Cold in July is sumptuous dark fable about duty, filled with outstanding performances and energised by an amazing score. It’s the kind of strange ride that requires you to surrender.
[rating=3] and a half
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Jim Mickle
Written by: Nick Damici and Jim Mickle (based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale)
Starring: Michael C Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Nick Damici, Vinessa Shaw, Wyatt Russell
DJ: Jim Bob
ND: Ray Price
VS: Ann Dane