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Cold in July

Review by: 
Head Cheeze
Release Date: 
Crime Drama
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Jim Mickle
Michael C. Hall
Sam Sheppard
Don Johnson
Vinessa Shaw
Nick Damici
Bottom Line: 

My first exposure to the writing of Joe R. Lansdale came back in the early 1990s in the form of DC Comics Vertigo imprint’s revival of Jonah Hex. The books read like a peyote-induced fever dream, rife with folk tales and southern fried horror, from a literary voice that was at once refreshingly original and warmly nostalgic. I became a follower then and there, and amassed quite the collection of Lansdale’s work, both in comics and in his many novels and story collections, including a fantastically twisted little novel titled Cold in July.  Now, brought to life by director Jim Mickle (Stake Land/We Are What We Are), with a killer cast that includes Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson, Lansdale’s creepy, multi-layered revenge thriller has become one of 2014’s best films.

Richard Dane (Hall) is a simple and happy man. He has a loving wife (Vinessa Shaw), a great son, and a solid business at his downtown frame store. Everything’s going great for Richard until one fateful night where a masked intruder threatens to take all of it away. Doing what any man would do under the circumstances, Richard defends his home, shooting the intruder, and killing him. After the adrenaline subsides, however, guilt quickly sets in, and Richard becomes obsessed with the man he killed; so much so that he even attends his funeral. It’s here that Richard meets the deceased’s estranged father, Ben Russell (Shepard), a recently paroled career criminal, and, by all accounts, a very, very dangerous man. Ben begins showing up outside of Richard’s son’s school, and driving by their house, which leads Richard to seek the aid of local sheriff, Ray Price (Mickle regular, Nick Damici). At first Price thinks Ben’s just trying to put a scare in Richard, but as the murderous ex-con’s true intentions reveal themselves, Price and his men rally together to try to save Richard and his family.

Ultimately, Russell is apprehended before he can do any harm, but, while down at the police station to file formal charges, Richard notices a wanted poster with Russell’s son’s picture on it. The problem is the man in the picture isn’t the man Richard shot! Price tries to convince Richard that his mind is playing tricks on him, but, as he digs deeper, he discovers a conspiracy that makes for an uneasy alliance between he and Russell; one that will take them both into a world of darkness and depravity the likes of which they can’t imagine.

Cold in July is the cinematic equivalent of a Russian nesting doll. Just when you think you know where the film is headed, it opens up and reveals an entirely new (and progressively more disturbing) plot thread that keeps the viewer guessing. It’s an expertly written piece of pulp with a sweaty southern gothic veneer and unflinching honesty.

Michael C. Hall is absolutely perfect as Richard, with his creepy mullet and twitchy demeanor. His transformation from reluctant protector to justice-seeking badass is actually quite subtle and believable as he follows Russell further down the rabbit hole into a world that couldn’t be more different from the one Richard left behind “on the surface”. Shepard is all kinds of intense, here, quiet and deliberate in his delivery and actions, yet threatening to explode at any moment, while Don Johnson– as Russell’s army buddy/no-nonsense P.I, Jim Bob – provides both comic relief and an essential bridge between Russell and Richard. It’s an important role as Jim Bob’s intimate knowledge of the mysterious and mercurial Russell gives Richard both the insight and assurance he needs to know that he’s doing the right thing, no matter how wrong it feels.  It’s a complex and beautifully realized dynamic these three characters have, and their quiet moments together are some of the film’s most effective as we bear witness to this uneasy alliance blossoming into a brotherhood.

Visually, the film is a stunner, with gorgeous cinematography by Ryan Samul, who convincingly apes that Panavision look employed by Dean Cundey during his run with John Carpenter, while a pulsating synth score (also very Carpenter-esque) adds to the 80s aesthete. Mickle, meanwhile, deftly balances the uncomfortable subject matter with just enough humor and over-the-top violence to make it an unlikely crowd-pleaser, especially by the time the film’s bloody coda rolls around. Think Rolling Thunder meets True Detective, and you’re about halfway there. I wouldn’t dream of saying anymore lest I ruin the films myriad surprises.

IFC Films presents Cold in July on DVD and Blu-ray. I received a DVD copy for review, but in terms of extras, it seems both releases are identical.  Included are cast and crew commentaries, deleted scenes and previsualization tests (with optional commentary), as well as an isolated score option. Also included is the film’s theatrical trailer.

Cold in July has a killer cast, a fantastic and involving story, and very competent direction by up-and-comer Mickle. It’s a pulpy, violent, and dark crime drama that will keep audiences guessing, and is easily amongst the best films of the year. This one gets my highest possible recommendation!   


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