I want to talk about Cold In July, mainly because not enough people already are and it’s a cracking thriller, probably my favourite film released in 2014. That’s not to say it was the “best” film of the last year; nor the most action packed, the funniest or scariest, but we spend too long judging films as if it were a competition especially at this time of year. I’m a sucker for the awards season, but when you take a step back many titles are conspicuous by their absence. Despite some initial attention on the festival circuit, Cold In July is one such gem.
The story has a deceptively simple premise, based on one of a series of novels by Joe R. Lansdale and adapted by Nick Damici with director Jim Mickle. Richard Dane (Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall) is woken in the night by a burglar in his home. His first thought is to protect his wife (Vinessa Shaw) and infant son. Following a brief, tense confrontation with the intruder, Dane shoots him dead. The police arrive and the scene is quickly cleared up as they know this particular villain and assure Dane that he did the right thing. He won’t face prosecution, in fact, he’s a hero.
He doesn’t feel like a hero. Dane is one of life’s normal guys, with a reputation to match. So normal that Hall found playing him cathartic after several seasons of Dexter. Well known in the local town, no-one would ever have expected Dane to have killed another man and the praise he receives makes him feel awkward. Plus he now has to deal with the ominous, simmering threat posed by the intruder’s father Ben Russell (played with considerable style by Sam Shepherd), recently released from prison and a far more substantial opponent than his petty criminal son.
That alone would make for a decent plot of a dozen other films, if somewhat predictable, but an early twist reveals the man Dane shot and killed was not Ben’s son. Why are the police so determined to ensure it was? And why are they relishing any excuse to put Ben down as well? You might think that’s a spoiler, but it’s worth knowing that much more. The real story is a far more gruesome and complicated affair. It’s rather typical of the saturated American crime novel genre, so much so it may explain why so few break out into screenplays.
There’s an ace up the sleeve of this one though in the shape of Don Johnson, playing pig farming private detective Jim Bob Luke. Awesome name! And he’s a heck of a character; Johnson has great fun with him. His arrival gives the film a kick up the backside, even though it didn’t really need it. The seedy screenplay has a good dose of comedy and Jim Bob is just one of the bonuses that help Cold In July stand out.
Some of the dark humour comes from the contrast between Dane’s reaction and, it seems, everyone else’s. He needs to see this through much further than his friends and family, especially his wife. While she is still somewhat affected, a sofa soaked with blood is still a good reason to get a new one that matches the decor a little better! That odd tone isn’t overplayed, it’s just that for her and everyone else, the story ended with the first bullet and they assume it’s the same for Dane. Except he’s sneaking about at night, unable to resist getting stuck into the excitement of the horrific real story that Jim Bob is uncovering.
Cold In July was released at a similar time to Two Faces of January, a glossy thriller that was critically acclaimed and given that over used label, “Hitchcockian”. Actually it was weak, vacuous and bore little resemblance even to To Catch a Thief, one of the Master’s least remarkable films. While still an unashamed genre piece, Cold In July is more deserving of shelf-space next to Hitchcock’s classics, featuring as it does his favourite conceit; the normal guy who finds murder on his doorstep.
What really makes this conceit work as well as it does in this instance is an excellent risk-taking narrative in Mickle and Damici’s screenplay (a similar approach they took with Stake Land). Potentially it is a messy plot with too many angles, but the focus is so tight on Dane that it feels even and measured throughout. So far so it’s worth using as an example of Todorov’s narrative equilibrium theory. Don’t yawn! As with many such theories you can bore people to death by making any film fit it to some extent. It’s only worth mentioning if the example explores it in particular and I’ll stick my neck out; the structure and, in particular the ending of Cold In July is so perfectly done it’s actually one of the best examples of the equilibrium stages since The Ladykillers of all things.
The well judged fast and loose style of director Mickle disguises such structure. Essentially it’s a modern western cum pulp noir, but an 80s setting and occasional music from the era evoke a mood not unlike the peerless Drive in moments. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This isn’t some minimalist piece, what with the pig farmer called Jim Bob, an irreverent sense of dark humour and sporadic, often brutal violence. One memorable execution sees a thug shot through the head and his blood splatters the only light bulb, bathing the rest of the scene in deep red! The mid-range tones come out well on Blu-Ray, but moments like that look astonishing. Mickle has an old fashioned, but cheeky sensibility that comes throughout the movie, though not always in such spectacular fashion.
Cold In July is a great example of classical filmmaking given a modern twist and a confident identity all of it’s own thanks to Mickle and Damici’s grasp of genre. It’s effortlessly watchable and hopefully we’ll see more of Johnson’s hilarious Jim Bob in the future.
Review originally posted on www.find-dvd.co.uk.