COLD IN JULY (2014)
As a big fan of writer/director Jim Mickle (Stake Land/We Are What We Are 2013) I was eagerly awaiting his next flick especially when I heard it would be a thriller and star Dexter’s Michael C. Hall. And while I feel the film left a few questions unanswered, I did like it’s bold changes of direction and Mickle’s very John Carpenter-ish style… including a dead-on Carpenter-esque score by Jeff Grace and a character named ‘Jack Crow’ (Lanny Flaherty) as from Carpenter’s Vampires. And I can only believe it was all deliberate.
The film is based on a book by Joe R. Lansdale and takes place in 1989 Texas. Small-town picture-framer Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) wakes up in the middle of the night to find an intruder in his house. In fear for the lives of his son, wife and self, he reluctantly confronts the man with his gun and shoots him dead after being startled. The unarmed man is identified by police chief Ray Price (Nick Damici, who co-scripted) as Freddy Russell (Wyatt Russell) a wanted man and known felon. Richard is stricken by guilt but, that is the least of his troubles as Freddy’s dad Ben (Sam Shepard), also a felon, has just been paroled and begins stalking Richard’s family, with apparent harmful intent for his little boy. But, as the police pursue the revenge minded Ben, the situation takes a bizarre turn as a twist of fate leads Richard to believe the man he shot was not Freddy Russell. Now to uncover the mystery of who was actually killed in his house and why the police are lying, leads Richard to the one person least likely to want to help him… Ben Russell.
I enjoyed this movie. It was a tense thriller and Mickle creates some great atmosphere and tension while also taking things suddenly in directions one does not expect… more than once. He and Nick Damici’s script takes us on some unexpected turns and ultimately delivers a blood soaked thriller far different than we expected going in. The style of the film reminded me very much of early John Carpenter and I doubt that is a coincidence as Jeff Grace’s accompanying score sounds as if it was lifted directly out of an 80s Carpenter film and Ryan Samul’s cinematography echoes that of a Carpenter flick. Mickle again shows he is a filmmaker to watch and he has a nice versatility in the tone of his projects. There is also a nice undercurrent of humor in the script, especially when Don Johnson is on-screen as delightfully cliche’d Texas private investigator Jim Bob Luke. The character is far too stereotypical to not be deliberate and it adds to the film’s atmosphere and flavor, lightening the very dour tone a bit to keep the atmosphere from being oppressive. There are some flaws. Changing narrative direction does leave some questions unanswered and I certainly question whether the fairly meek Richard would have voluntarily seen this thing through, like he does, once it appeared things would get bloody. There are a few things I can certainly figure out on my own, but, the film does still leave us with quandaries and the change in narrative does leave characters behind who we’d like a bit of closure with. But, I still enjoyed the film as it is and the last act bloodbath was quite effective. And another factor that helps overcome some of it’s flaws, aside from Mickle’s skilled direction, is a dynamite cast…
Michael C. Hall is very effective as a demure small-town business and family man who is dropped into a violent situation that turns into a mystery and gets even more violent. He seems like a good man who truly wants answers to satisfy his conscience for not only killing an unarmed intruder but, why he was lied to about his identity. I’m not sure Richard would have pursued things to it’s bloody end when given a chance to walk away, but, Hall is still good in the part, nonetheless. Sam Shepard is absolutely gripping as Ben Russell. At first he comes across as a violent and vengeful man with harmful intent toward Dane and his family but, as the mystery unfolds, he becomes a different person altogether and one who might actually have a sense of honor underneath the convicted felon. Shepard is a gifted actor that really makes a simple criminal into a complex three dimensional character. Don Johnson also shines as good-ole-boy private detective and pig farmer Jim Bob Luke. He has a good time with a man who is both charmingly Americana yet, larger than life and Johnson also imbues a stereotype character with some layers and dimensionality as we get to know him. Johnson’s last few roles has shown us an actor who has matured gracefully and only gotten better with age. Nick Damici also proves he has become a good actor aside from Mickle’s co-writer, on all his previous projects, and his Ray Price is an interesting character with interesting motives and it’s too bad the story leaves him behind at a fairly early point. The rest of the supporting cast are just fine and the acting helps make this flick work as well as it does.
So, despite a few unanswered questions and some changes in story direction that may throw some viewers off… but, I liked them… this is a taunt and sometimes very violent thriller from a director who continues to grow and surprise. I loved tha the film evoked John Carpenter in his prime and what it might have been like had the master director done a down and dirty thriller like this. I also loved Jeff Grace’s very Carpenter-ish score and the addition of a character named ‘Jack Crow’ leads me to believe that the Carpenter style and score was not a co-incidence. An atmospheric thriller not afraid to change gears and take us in unexpected and sometimes blood-soaked directions, guided by a director who can deliver the goods and win us over despite the film’s flaws.