Cold in July (2014)
“How many men can one bullet kill?”
Cold in July (2014)
Director: Jim Mickle
Cast: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson
Synopsis: When a protective father meets a murderous ex-con, both need to deviate from the path they are on as they soon find themselves entangled in a downwards spiral of lies and violence while having to confront their own inner psyche.
Some people believe that Jim Mickle’s Cold in July is a poker-faced black comedy in which the genre tropes of 1980s action movies are mercilessly parodied, but I’m not so sure. If they’re right, you have to ask whether straight-faced ironic comedy which has become so oblique as to be invisible to all but its creators has really achieved its objective or failed completely. It’s difficult to see any reference to those 80s movies – other than the fact that Cold in July is set in 1989 – and while Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici’s CV suggests they possess the talent and intelligence necessary to craft some hidden double-meaning within an ostensibly straightforward tale, evidence of this on the screen is difficult to come by. Cold in July is a slow-burner that is by turns intriguing and oddly dispiriting. Plot twists seem included for momentary impact rather than to contribute to our understanding of the characters or their motives – and those twists take two of our characters on journeys of absolute reversal that simply beggars belief.
Michael C. Hall plays Richard Dane, a nondescript family man in a small Texan town who accidentally shoots a burglar in his house one night. Dane is something of a doormat, nagged by his wife and blithely pigeon-holed by those around him. The local sheriff on the case (Damici) expresses mild surprise that ‘a man like you’ had the nerve to pull the trigger, and Danes’ pride at least bristles enough for him to delay confessing that his finger slipped until he’s giving a statement to another officer. Perhaps a little guilt-stricken, Dane drives by the burglar’s grave only to run into the dead man’s father, Russel (Sam Shepard – Killing Them Softly, Out of the Furnace).
So far, we’re firmly in routine b-movie thriller territory as we see Russel undermine the security of Danes’ family without apparently breaking the law. But then things take the first of many twists: Danes accidentally discovers that the mug shot of Russel’s son looks nothing like the man he shot. Then he sees the local police taking Russel – whom they told Dane had been arrested across the border – to a remote section of railway track where they beat him senseless and leave him on the tracks to be sliced up by the next train to pass by. Dane saves Russel and, with the help of colourful private eye Jim Bob (Don Johnson – Django Unchained) tries to discover who it was that he shot dead in his home, and the whereabouts of Russel’s son.
Dane never does find out who it was that he shot, but the film doesn’t seem to consider that important. Neither does it think much of the Witness Protection Program, under which Russel’s son has been issued with a new identity. Pig farmer-cum-private eye Jim Bob unearths Russel’s new identity with an improbably slick piece of detection work which is explained away in a couple of throwaway lines. The police seem unconcerned by the fact that the body they left to be cut to pieces on the tracks mysteriously disappeared. The list of plot holes goes on, and those of us incapable of identifying the irreverent humour in them are left to wonder why Cold in July is as entertaining as it is when it keeps riding roughshod over logic and common sense.
The presence of Don Johnson helps. His arrival marks the point at which Cold in July finally takes off, and his character enables the story to take us to places which that low-key opening would never have led us to expect. Hall does well in a role that offers little opportunity for real expression, while Shepard anchors the whole thing with an understated performance that defies the implausibility of his character’s shift from bad guy to good. Together, this unlikely trio somehow manage to win the audience’s approval as they embark on a crackpot scheme of redemption that doesn’t even begin to ring true for one moment.
(Reviewed 19th December 2014)