Jim Mickle’s “Cold In July” is a peculiar mix of genres. At times a revenge thriller, and at others a noir, slasher, with a splash of grindhouse. It can get messy at times and there are some awkward changes in tone, but it never fails to be entertaining and unpredictable.
The movie revolves around Richard Dane (Michael C Hall), a mild mannered upstanding East Texas citizen with a wife and son who runs a picture-framing store. The trouble begins when he shoots an intruder dead in his home in the middle of the night. Being the passive nonviolent fellow he is, this event leaves him nervous and shaking, even feeling guilty. Because of this guilt he decides to go to the funeral of the man and runs into the intruder’s dad Russell (Sam Shepard), who’s just been granted parole and isn’t happy.
In many respects Richard resembles a typical Film Noir protagonist: the seemingly innocent civilian who puts his life and his family’s on the line. For a while we think it’s going to be about Russell’s attempt to kill Richard out of vengeance and Richard’s obligation to protect his family from danger once again. And this is the way it plays out for a while, Russell stalks the family, seeming to materialize out of nowhere similar to a horror movie villain such as Michael Meyers. And Jeff Grace’s old school synthesizer soundtrack gives this entire section a slasher film vibe.
However this story resolves itself after about twenty minutes or so when the movie mutates into something totally different. Richard becomes uncertain as to whether the guy he shot was actually Russell’s son and becomes suspicious that there’s a cover-up involving the police. Things take an even stranger turn when Russell and Richard join forces and together with Houston private eye (Don Johnson, decked out in cowboy gear) try to uncover what’s really going on.
In some respects “Cold in July” plays out like a pulpier version of a Hitchcock film. Screenwriters Mickle and Nick Damici (based on the book by Joe R Lansdale) keep the viewers on their toes the entire time, just when you think you know how the movie is going to play out it takes a left turn into darker and darker territory. Near the end when the final disturbing twist of the plot is revealed (accompanied by Grace’s synthesizer music again) it turns into a full-blown, gory 70’s/80’s grindhouse style movie.
Admittedly, “Cold in July” doesn’t have quite the same finesse of a Hitchcock film, as I mentioned above there are some sudden shifts in tone. The movie primarily wants to be dark in tone but at times it veers into silliness, which doesn’t always work. I also thought Richard and Russell’s transition from foes to friends was a bit abrupt. I find it strange that Richard would be so quick to help Russell after being threatened by him. In fact at one point Russell even breaks into his house and hides in the crawlspace only to almost kill his son. Kind of creepy if you ask me.
Nevertheless, the picture still succeeds in being a tense and compelling southern noir. Hall, who’s known mainly for playing a serial killer with a strict moral code on the TV show “Dexter” does a fantastic job of portraying an innocent family man who becomes capable of doing violent acts for the sake of “good.” While Shepard goes from being an intimidating ex con in search of vengeance to a concerned dad in search of truth and ultimately has to make an extremely tough decision. And Johnson is amusing as the private eye character that provides a little comic relief as the film mines darker and darker territory.