One never knows exactly where Jim Mickle is going to turn up next. What we do know is that whatever film he takes on it will be gritty, pulpy, and very bloody. After scoring an indie hit the vampire flick, Stake Land, followed by the chilling horror remake We Are What We Are, Mickle has channeled the likes of Walter Hill and John Carpenter for Cold in July, a dingy and muscular throwback that's like something you might pluck from the shelf of your favorite video store and watch late one night.
It takes some getting used to Dexter's murderous star Michael C. Hall as the meek, mullet-haired Richard Dane, a Texas family man with a wife (Vinessa Shaw), son, and modest business in the heart of town. Mickle puts the squeeze on early, during an ominous night in which Richard's home is busted into by an intruder, and in the blink of an eye his world is irrevocably changed. Accidentally shooting the intruder, sending his brains all over his neatly-arranged living room, Richard is suddenly a changed a man. The violence has changed him, but with it come a seemingly unending string of consequences.
This being Texas, Richard's ego is pumped up by some of the gun-toting locals, and it's clearly having an effect. No longer so shy and reserved, he's now walking with his chest out and a swagger in his step. But that all starts to change when he learns the man he killed had a father, Ben (Sam Shepard), a career criminal just let out on parole. It isn't long before Ben is lurking around every corner making none-too-subtle threats of revenge, which are mostly ignored by the seemingly hapless cops. When Ben finally strikes, literally waltzing right past the police and into Richard's home, the formerly quiet and reserved family man is again forced into the uncomfortable position of hero. Or at least what passes for a "hero" in a place where "shoot first, ask questions later" seems to be the policy.
But lest you think Mickle is making some sort of anti-gun political statement, setting the film in the 1980s and in "Stand Your Ground" Texas of all places, just wait because something to change your mind is right around the corner. What starts off as a standard-issue home invasion thriller, where the innocent family is hunted by a maniacal loon, flips on a dime into an all-encompassing small town conspiracy flick. And with that twist also comes a comic edge in the form of Houston private eye Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson), Ben's old war buddy who shows up to drag him out of trouble. Johnson and Shepard, two grizzled old vets if there ever were, pump up the testosterone factor while Hall settles in as the straight-man in the oddest comic trio ever.
Ruminations about manliness intertwine with an investigation into the Texas Mafia (really) and a pornography ring fittingly run out of the back of a video store. It doesn't always make for the tightest mix, and the pace sways a little unevenly as Mickle blends in multiple genres. Echoes of Cronenberg's A History of Violence can be felt, along with the works of John Carpenter, Walter Hill, and others. Visually stunning with oppressive blues and blacks hinting at the shadows on each character’s souls, the ominous mood Mickle creates will grind into dust those who aren't committed for the long haul. While separately some of Cold in July's facets don't completely work, as a whole it's a down 'n dirty guy flick with surprising ambition. It's another feather in the cap for Mickle, whose unpredictability is what will continue to carry him far.