Review: Atmosphere, Suspense Line Jim Mickle's Intense 'Cold in July'
by Jeremy Kirk
June 6, 2014
A strange noise in the middle of the night awakens a young couple. The husband, Richard Dane, goes to the closet, opens it, and quietly begins to load his gun. He begins searching the house, walking down the dark hallway towards the living room. Suddenly, a beam from a flashlight shines against the far wall, a light that is coming from within the house. Richard freezes, unable to take in a breath. Panicked. This is the first of many moments that generate a veritable intensity throughout Cold in July, powerful adaptation of the Joe R. Lonsdale crime-thriller novel from We Are What We Are director Jim Mickle. Read more below!
There is always something of interest at the heart of a Jim Mickle film. Even his feature debut, the "were-rat" gorefest Mulberry St. had so much more going on under the hood than it's premise implied. Mickle and writing partner Nick Damici (who also appears prominently in all of Mickle's films) have a way of reaping genuine drama from any fantastical situation, whether it be a world overrun by vampires as in Stake Land or the rustic lifestyle of a family of cannibals in We Are What We Are. However, Cold in July is their most grounded film yet, in terms of story anyway.
Michael C. Hall stars as Dane, the father who is awakened by an intruder late one night, loads his gun, and discovers the assailant still in the house. Events don't go smoothly, and Dane ends up killing the intruder with one shot. The police arrive (Damici making his appearance here as the sheriff), handle the situation, take statements, and send Dane back home for the messy cleanup he and his wife (Vinessa Shaw) have to undertake.
One of the many elements that make Cold in July so grounded, beyond the palpability of its unrelenting suspense, are those moments of aftermath Mickle and Damici take the time to explore. We see the couple wiping up blood stains from the events in their living, see the husband taping over the busted glass in their kitchen door where the intruder broke in. You don't normally see moments like this that would usually be considered frivolous. They aren't.
Instead, they draw you further into this somewhat distant world, East Texas in 1989. It's a more violent side of that setting, a side where the father of a young man who was shot and killed may seek out a little vengeance for his dead son. It doesn't matter if the man who shot the young man was acting in self defense. Sam Shepard plays that father, Ben Russell, and it isn't long before Russell is tormenting the family, making slight but foreboding threats against Dane's young son. A perfect movie for Father's Day, Cold in July is all about the great lengths a father will go to protect his son. You have no idea to what lengths this movie goes to show that.
Cold in July, thankfully, tells a much more twisting and turning tale than two fathers who violently go after one another. To that end, the trailers for this film have been slightly misleading, only giving away the general premise of the first third of the film. Mickle and company plows through that third with a frantic pace. Every scene in the front half of Cold in July feels like a dramatic action beat, each one drawing you further into the suspense and further towards the edge of your seat.
It's not just the pacing or the constant jolts with which Mickle lines his film. He's not just a filmmakers who tells engaging stories, he embraces the atmosphere in which each of his narratives suitably fit. The world Cold in July enters us into is evidently violent, but it's borderline horror. Constant thunderstorms cover the scene, the big-rain, bright-lightning kind you tend to find in Texas. A particularly expository scene would probably go by forgotten were it not set at a drive-in theater showing Romero's Night of the Living Dead.
The film rides a dark, brooding highway until that inevitable, final shift that sets it on its path. Introducing Dane (and us) to this new "adventure" is Don Johnson's Jim Bob Luke, who not only has an impressive character name, his cherry red, Cadillac convertible with the license "RED BTCH" is pretty flashy, as well. The film becomes less a revenge thriller and more a modern day Western, shifting gears just slightly to the more thrilling side of suspense.
The back half of Cold in July slows the pace as far as turns in the road go, but the intensity withholds even when little or no action is happening at all. Kudos go all around to the three leads of this film; Hall for pulling off genuine emotion and drama even under that hideous mullet he wears as a sign of the times, Shepard for becoming a presence once again on film and basking in the darkness with which his character brings (credit Mickle, Damici, and Lonsdale, too), and Johnson for clearly just having a helluva good time. Late in the film, he drops the line "All right boys, it's Howdy Doody time," and though it is a line from Lonsdale's novel, it comes through unconstrained, as if it were a line the actor improvised on the spot.
That's the gift of the way Jim Mickle makes his films, the naturalness of every aspect of his stories is complete in the world in which they're set. Cold in July is hardly an exception, rather a film that epitomizes just how talented its director is. Packed with beat-after-beat that all work towards ratcheting up the suspense, it's one more solid thriller in a director's career that has quickly become one of, if not the, most interesting in the art-form. An intense tale of revenge and conspiracy and a peculiar mix of vibrant, neon Western and haunting, discomforting thriller, Cold in July hits its nail right on the head.
Jeremy's Rating: 9 out of 10
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