Start with a bit of film noir (albeit in color), mix in some very dark comedy, add a big dose of thriller and voila, enjoy the feast that is “Cold in July.” Directed by Jim Mickle with screenplay by Mickle and Nick Damici, based on Joe R. Lansdale’s novel, “ Cold in July” will have you laughing, cringing and on the edge of your seat.
The story takes place in 1989 Texas. Richard and Ann Dane (Michael C. Hall and Vinessa Shaw) are asleep in their bedroom when they’re awakened by a noise in another room in their house. Richard takes out his gun from a lock box and very warily makes his way to the living room. There he is confronted by a hooded man with a flashlight. Richard’s finger slips and he accidentally kills the intruder. Although it’s considered an act of self-defense, Richard feels terribly guilty about what he has done. The owner of a frame shop, Richard is an upstanding, rather timid citizen and the small town’s citizens, especially Sheriff Price (Nick Damici), are shocked that “he had it in him” to actually shoot someone. The sheriff tells Richard that the person he killed was Freddy Russell, a wanted felon, and that the town will be burying him. Richard is so full of guilt and remorse that he drives to the cemetery for the service where he encounters Fred’s father, Ben (Sam Shepard). Although Richard offers his apologies and condolences, Ben is having none of it and threatens harm to Richard’s wife and young son. Without going into too much detail, Richard begins to doubt if Freddy is the person he actually killed and if it wasn’t him, who is in the grave. An unlikely alliance is formed to get at the truth, abetted by Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson), a pig farmer and private detective and most importantly, a friend of Ben’s. Once Don Johnson’s character enters the scene, the dark comedy begins. His awe and fascination with his mobile phone (this is 1989) is extremely funny. It’s also his take-charge attitude that helps propel the action forward.
Much of “Cold in July’s” success is based on the film’s three male leads. All are excellent and have terrific chemistry together. Although the roles are nothing alike, in “Dexter” there was something about Hall that made you like his character, despite his horrific deeds. He brings that same likeability to “Cold in July” —you just want to root for him. He is extremely convincing as the unsteady, unlikely hero who gradually warms up to the idea of taking risks. He’s utterly fantastic. Sam Shepard doesn’t say much, but his body language and eyes speak volumes. His work with Hall is especially good. Finally there is Don Johnson. He’s just plain fabulous. In the past few years Johnson has had a reinvigorated career beginning with “Django Unchanged,” the recent “The Other Woman” and now this film. With the glint in his eyes, he turns his character into a breath of light, fresh air in what, until his appearance, has been a very dark film.
“Cold in July” isn’t perfect. Not all questions are answered. However, director Mickle and his three leading men make you forget about those questions—you are that captivated by what is taking place on-screen.
“Cold in July” is out on limited release and is available On Demand.