Directed by: Jim Mickle
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw
If there’s one thing Cold In July cannot be accused of lacking, it’s ambition. Over the course of a tight running time, Director Jim Mickle and screenwriting collaborator Nick Damici attempt to tread a fine line between the intensity of dark Southern-set thrillers like Red Rock West and breezy pulp actioners such as Road House. The result is a film that’s comprised of two very differing halves; both are laudable in their own right, but messy when they’re mashed together.
In the rural outskirts of a small Southern town in 1989, Richard Dane awakens one night to find an intruder in his house. Panicked and fearful for his family’s safety, Dane accidently shoots the intruder dead, much to the delight of the local police chief. As it transpires, the man Dane shot was a wanted felon whose father had just been released from jail. Soon enough, Dane finds himself having to contend with the father’s vengeful intentions.
It’s a ferocious opening act that’s fast paced, tightly wound, and benefitting from two very strong central performances. Transplanted in to a role that’s the complete antithesis of his iconic self-assured serial killer Dexter Morgan, Michael C. Hall naturalistically builds a character whose fearful attitude and rigid body language makes him intensely vulnerable when pitted next to Sam Shepard’s menacing ex-con.
Clearly infused by the taut narrative style of the 80s thrillers he’s inspired by, Mickle shows no hurry during these early scenes and allows for the gnawing tension of the situation to tightly grip hold of you. The dirty nighttime locations perfectly juxtapose with Ryan Samul’s rough and raw cinematography, further adding to the momentum of Dane’s plight and embodying the B movie aesthetic Mickle is keen to emulate.
The problem is that this is only half the film, with a sudden plot-twist sending Cold In July down a very different and unexpected path. It’s here that things begin to unravel, particularly within the narrative. The continual addition of further layers to the story cohesively weakens the film’s tone, causing a chaotic transition from tense thriller to pulp actioner. Though it does eventually find its feet in time for the viscerally violent finale, the film never manages to feel as strong during the extended second and third acts as it does during its pulsating early stages.
What it does achieve though is a lightness of touch that further emphasises the filmmaker’s celebratory feelings towards the Southern-set thrillers Cold In July is rooted within. Much of this is personified by Don Johnson, who acts as a walking slice of 80s nostalgia from the moment he shows up wearing a white Stetson and driving a red sports car adorned with tiger print interior and an inbuilt phone that only has reception when held out the window. Both Johnson and the audience have a great time here, with Mickle exuding far more confidence when playing around with the trashier elements of the genre.
Unfortunately though, this unbalanced second half can’t help but encumber the stronger scenes that have come before it. Yet while Mickle’s execution may not have the brains to entirely succeed, it does at least have the heart and determination to try.