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

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was