Cold in July
(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.