Skip to main content

Yeah, you got the picture, framer.

Cold in July
(2014)

(SPOILER) Cold in July might not have the most watertight of plotting. It relies on some fairly hefty coincidences, and certain developments are murky of logic at best, or make no sense at all at worst. Yet this ‘80s set thriller barrels along with an absurdly energised awareness of its chosen genre, and its ability to upend assumptions of what exactly may be going on, or indeed, what the movie is about, is irresistible.


The eccentric plotting presumably comes straight from Joe R Lansdale’s novel of the same name.  I’m only otherwise familiar with Lansdale via Don Coscarelli’s adaptation of his Bubba Ho-Tep novella. On the evidence of both, one can conclude he has an inimitably offbeat sense of humour. Although Cold in July features some fairly intense material (most notably a digression into snuff movies) and posits broad thematic elements (the relationship between fathers and sons), there is little room for tackling such subjects seriously. It’s too busy twisting and turning and undercutting expectations.  In that sense, it may have more in common with a Coen brothers movie, where the pitch perfect milieu is reason in itself.


When Richard Dane (Michael C Hall, equipped with a ridiculous ‘tache and a raging mullet) kills a burglar, it looks like an open and shut case of self-defence. But then Ben Russell (Sam Shephard, turning up the grizzled menace), the thief’s father, begins stalking Richard and his family, announcing he will exact eye for an eye vengeance on Richard’s son. So it looks like we’re in for another variant on good wholesome folk fending off a nutter (anything from Cape Fear to Pacific Heights to Lakeview Terrace).


But then odd things start to occur. We discover Ben’s son is not dead after all, and Richard and Ben flip from antagonists to joining forces in order to discover the hows and whys. For a brief period we enter shadowy conspiracy territory. But let’s not waste time on that. Calling on the services cowboy-looking private eye-come-pig farmer Jim Bob (Don Johnson), the trio attempt to track down Ben’s son Freddy (Wyatt Russell, quickly making a name for himself, and a chip off Kurt’s block; the moment where he berates a video store employee for using offensive terms – “limey stuff” – is our first encounter proper, and he’s throws us off with his affability). This leads them into a much more chilling situation, as our mismatched heroes pop a video in the machine and are aghast at what they see.


It’s probably inevitable that a picture so slippery and inventive (while being almost obsequiously derivative) should succumb to less show stopping tunes in the final reel, but there’s no huge shame in that; very few could have kept up the momentum. Cold in July is, on one level, simply embracing the genre standard showdown shootout, and it does so tensely and effectively. But, after what has preceded it, it’s narratively a little flat (the only surprise would have been if Ben walked away and Jim Bob succumbed to his injuries).


It’s been suggested that Richard isn’t a wholly believable character. Admittedly, his mullet takes some swallowing, but I think he’s treated fairly consistently. The nervous everyman, who cannot measure up to his father’s machismo, discovers a different kind of mettle. It’s the kind that’s born through persistence. Those who consider it unlikely that one so unaccustomed to the ways of violence should end up tagging along for the final ride don’t seem to have paid attention to the fact that Richard is clearly quite out of his depth. He fells one opponent only after an extremely messy altercation, and is unable to even shoot straight when it comes to the main target. As soon as Richard gives tail to the police disposing Ben, it should be quite clear that he is unable to resume his pre-shooting life. Something has been piqued, and it would only be stretching credulity if he then became some sort of kick-ass avenger. Hall is expectedly very good, even if one finds oneself occasionally slipping into “What would Dexter do now?” (with this and the risible finale of that series, Hall seems determined to challenge himself with bizarre follicular appliances).


Less successful is the depiction of Richard’s home life, quickly abandoned once he pursues his case. Vinessa Shaw is strong as the wife, and there are indications that Richard, when pushed, may not be the most understanding and attentive of dads. This forms a bridge to the other father-son plotline. While I don’t think the picture amounts to much more than an invigorating rattle of genre-isms, with a cast this good it nevertheless manages to have momentary impact. Shepard in particular is such a pro that his somewhat unlikely transformation from creepy psycho to force of retribution is never less than convincing (“I’m Ben Russell. I’m your father. I came here to kill you”).


Much of the acclaim for the movie has been reserved for Johnson’s supporting turn as Jim Bob. That’s entirely understandable. He brings the kind of easy, laconic, good ol’ boy charm that looks deceptively easy but few can pull off. Indeed, this is exactly the sort of role you could see Matthew McConaughey playing in another 20 years. As such, it invites a reappraisal of Johnson in general, who through bad choices or quirks of fate has never really seized prize roles (there have been near misses, such as The Untouchables). His first scene is indicative of his immense charm, arriving in Richard’s framing store and, without missing a beat, behaving like a genuine customer in order not to provoke the police inspector’s suspicions (“You think you could coral this little filly in a frame for me?”)


There’s a danger that Cold in July’s level of coincidence and contrivance could put off the less forgiving viewer. It’s an incredible fluke that Richard should show up at the police station just as Nick Damici’s inspector is bundling Ben into the back of a car. Then it happens again; the trio get rear-ended by an associate of Freddy. And, lo and behold, there are snuff movies in the boot. Also, as plot details go, it isn’t wholly clear just why the inspector wants to bump off Ben (one presumes its to keep the DEA duplicity secret, but as it plays it’s borderline motiveless).


Mickle fully embraces the ‘80s-ness of it all, although the 1989 date appears to be more of a nod to the year the novel was published than an accurate reflection of the period here; the realm of mullets, soft rock, seedy video rentals and Carpenter synth scores probably peaked two or three years earlier. Of the latter, score so indebted to the horror maestro that at times it races off leaving the rest of the movie trailing behind.


While the picture is fairly direct in narrative, occasionally Mickle throws in an unexpected oddity; the shot, post-encounter with the Mexican (Tim Lajcik) the director stays on a long shot, presenting a tableau of his sprawled out body, abandoned car and a yappy dog; it’s almost Lynchean in its eye for suburban strangeness. Mickle is returning to the Landsale well for a Hap and Leonard TV series (based on the author’s best known novel series). If Cold in July is any indication, it will be must-see.




Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

You have a very angry family, sir.

Eternals (2021) (SPOILERS) It would be overstating the case to suggest Eternals is a pleasant surprise, but given the adverse harbingers surrounding it, it’s a much more serviceable – if bloated – and thematically intriguing picture than I’d expected. The signature motifs of director and honestly-not-billionaire’s-progeny Chloé Zhao are present, mostly amounting to attempts at Malick-lite gauzy natural light and naturalism at odds with the rigidly unnatural material. There’s woke to spare too, since this is something of a Kevin Feige Phase Four flagship, one that rather floundered, showcasing his designs for a nu-MCU. Nevertheless, Eternals manages to maintain interest despite some very variable performances, effects, and the usual retreat into standard tropes, come the final big showdown.