Film Review: ‘Cold in July’ (RTJ)

Michael C. Hall

One night in 1989, an East Texas couple (Vinessa Shaw and Michael C. Hall) wake to the sound of someone prowling their house. Husband Richard gets the pistol out of the shoebox on the bedroom closet shelf and loads it. Down the hall, a flashlight beam is dancing in the livingroom. Richard steps in to surprise the masked intruder. Masked intruder is duly surprised. So is Richard when the gun he just loaded goes off in his hand, not quite on its own, but almost. (It didn’t help that Richard’s wife Ann stepped up behind him just then and asked what was happening.) Now the intruder sits/falls on the livingroom couch, his blood all over the couch, the wall behind it, and that nice painting of a summer landscape hanging there. It takes him only an additional second to die.

Despite ordinary citizen Richard’s discomfiture with having shot and killed somebody, local law enforcement assures him all will be well. True, the victim turned out to be unarmed, but he was a known scumbag and Richard acted out of “fear of life.” Besides, the guy was the son of a previous-generation scumbag (“The shit don’t fall far from the tree”) serving a long sentence in Huntsville. Except, oh, it seems that that fella just got out on parole. And there he is, standing at the edge of the cemetery watching the perfunctory burial of his offspring, and wishing Richard a nice day.

Cold in July, based on Joe R. Lansdale’s 1995 novel, is a terrific movie—the more terrific for the way it keeps evolving into another movie, and then another, you had no expectation of seeing. As reel two gets underway, a white-knuckle inland variation on Cape Fear is taking shape, with a lean, mean Sam Shepard in the Mitchum or De Niro role. That’s how it plays for a while, and very effectively, too. But then, well, our understanding of things changes, changes radically. And a reel or so later, something changes again.

This is the fourth feature film from writer-director Jim Mickle and his co-writer and sometime lead actor Nick Damici (Damici plays the county sheriff here). I haven’t seen their first, Mulberry Street, but Stake Land rose to the challenge of finding a fresh approach to doing a vampire movie; it also just may be the most exciting post-apocalypse picture since The Road Warrior. Mickle and Damici’s third, We Are What We Are, portrayed a swamp-trotting family committed to cannibalism—on holistic grounds, you might say. It was at its best when it was funniest.

The team are good storytellers, and their stories go places we don’t expect. They walk up to conventions and violate them so brusquely they don’t seem to know they’re doing it, because they don’t traffic in conventions, see? There’s no wheelspinning, no luxuriating in effects or dragging out even moments of near-epiphany. Life and movies are for getting on with.

And for seeing. Mickle has one of the best eyes in the business. His frames are CinemaScope wide (Ryan Samul is and has been his DP), acutely attuned to his characters’ states of mind and emotion, what they can and can’t see or know, the feel of a place, and ever alert to eccentric opportunities such as a very large man contorted on a lawn at extreme frame left while a small yapping dog strains against its leash at extreme right.

Sam Shepard, Michael C. Hall and Don Johnson

The actual beginning of Cold in July, the first thing we see, is that landscape painting on the Dane family livingroom wall. The camera is close to it, slowly backing out, so that for a few seconds, what with the effects of dimness and the strangeness of moonlight, we don’t know that it is a painting. Watching it change, emerge, fall into proper perspective with the rest of the world is the first of the film’s many evolutions, reorientations, clarifications. (And then, minutes later, the blood is on it.)

This quiet bit of trompe-l’oeil is an apt opening gambit for another reason: Richard Dane runs a frame shop where people come to get pictures mounted. Whether that was his specified line of work in the Lansdale novel or a cinematic choice by Mickle and Damici isn’t important (though I’d love it if it were the latter). It can claim as distinguished antecedent Bruno Ganz’s occupation in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, wherein Ganz’s unassuming, regular-civilian protagonist is drawn into a world of crime and intrigue through his unsought, but increasingly alluring, friendship with the cosmopolitan badman played by Dennis Hopper. That’s much the same course on which Richard Dane finds himself as Cold in July executes its hairpin, life-altering turns.

Again, this is something Mickle puts us in touch with through the visual energy of his film. I don’t know of another current director so attuned to the electric beauty and terror of how the landscape and environment can change with the sweep of car headlights, or how poisonous artificial lighting can turn. The veiled threat Sam Shepard’s character makes to Richard in the bright sun of a Texas afternoon is delivered out of a frame that seems smoky with hellfire. And the last reel plays out in zones of primary color from which people deal death at one another, in a devil’s-carnival of retribution and bloody redemption.

Hall and Shepard both take their characters on violent journeys of self-discovery that never lose coherence, and it’s probably a good idea to warn you that right around the film’s midpoint, a startlingly comic note is sounded with the entrance of Mr. Don Johnson as a character named Jim Bob, who would have to be wearing a Stetson. Hang in there, he’s a good man to have on your side. And I mustn’t attempt to explain the wonderfulness of a moment at a rural drive-in where Night of the Living Dead is holding its own against the dusk. It’s the moment when a TV news reader is delivering the deadpan line “People who have recently died are returning to life.” Not in that way, of course, but … well, just see this movie.

Copyright © 2014 by Richard T. Jameson