Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Movie Review: Cold in July

Cold in July
Directed by: Jim Mickle.
Written by: Nick Damici & Jim Mickle based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale.
Starring: Michael C. Hall (Richard Dane), Sam Shepard (Russel), Don Johnson (Jim Bob), Vinessa Shaw (Ann Dane), Nick Damici (Ray Price), Wyatt Russell (Freddy), Brogan Hall (Jordan Dane).

Jim Mickle’s Cold in July is one of the least predictable movies of the year. Most movies, even great ones, are on some sort of narrative autopilot – following its plot and characters in a predictable pattern from beginning to end. Cold in July is different. Unlike most films, you’ll have no idea where this film will end up in its last act from its first act. Yet, amazingly, the plot makes sense. Mickle and his co-screenwriter Nick Damici have adapted a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, and while their plot is completely unpredictable, it makes sense from moment to moment. It’s just those moments are unexpected. It makes the experience of watching Cold in July exciting.

The movie opens with Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) hearing a noise in his house. Grabbing his gun, he confronts a would-be burglar and shoots him dead. The cops believe him – it was clearly self-defense – the guy had a record, and it’s a fairly open and shut case. But Richard isn’t so sure. He is haunted by what he did – he didn’t mean to, and feels bad about taking another man’s life – even if he did it to protect himself and his wife and young son. Then the burglar’s father – Russel (Sam Shepard) – shows up. He has spent years in jail, didn’t really know his son – but doesn’t like that he’s now dead. He may well want revenge.

Given that very basic setup, you are probably thinking you know where the movie is going to go. And you couldn’t possibly be more wrong. Director Mickle is mostly known for horror films – like his post-apocalyptic vampire film Stakeland and his ever disturbing cannibal family film We Are What We Are – and Cold in July opens like a realistic horror film – a home invasion film, perhaps along the lines of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. But then it twists, and becomes a strange, at times even comedic, buddy film with the arrival of a P.I. named Jim Bob (Don Johnson). And then it twists again, taking it in disturbing, noir territory.

The plot twists in Cold in July wouldn’t work if the performances in the film weren’t as good – and consistent – as they are in the film. Hall`s performance as Richard is the films core – and its key to the overall effect, as if we do not believe that he would do what he does, than the whole film would fall apart. But we do. For a while, we think Richard maybe a typical, albeit well meaning, redneck – it’s got a little bit of mullet, a bad mustache, and Hall exaggerates the accent a little. But he is, at heart, a good man – someone who wants to know why he did what he did, and will not leave it alone. He is, in many ways, a typical noir “hero’- a normal guy drawn into a dark world he doesn’t understand. Shepard is equally good as Russel – Shepard is one of those actors incapable of delivering a false moment, who never makes his `redneck` characters into stereotypes. His character is one who has a code – however dark it may be – and he`s not that unlike John Wayne in The Searchers. Then there`s Don Johnson, having great fun playing Jim Bob, until the film becomes too dark for it to be fun.

If there is a flaw in Cold in July it’s that the film spends so much time with its plot twists, and making them believable, that the film never really delves beneath its surface. This is not a very deep film at all – and it’s one that I wonder if it would work the second time through, once all of its mysteries have are known. Truly great thrillers, like Hitchcock`s masterpieces, are great even when the mysteries are known – arguably even more so, as the films get deeper the more you look at them. Cold in July isn’t really interested in anything deeper. This aside, Cold in July is still a perfectly executed thriller that works amazingly well on its first time through. That’s rare among modern thrillers that often make you roll their eyes at how silly they become. Cold in July follows its premise right to the end – and on a surface level, is terrific.

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