Directed by: Jim Mickle
Premise: Based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale. A father (Michael C. Hall) kills a burglar but then is harassed by the burglar’s father (Sam Shepard). Both men discover that something more is afoot and uncover a network of lies, corruption, and underworld violence.
What Works: Cold in July is a movie that begins in one place and ends in quite another and the filmmakers successfully use genre conventions to offset the audience’s expectations. The story begins with the death of a burglar who is killed by a mild mannered store owner, played by Michael C. Hall. The police behave mysteriously and Hall’s character believes they intentionally misidentified the body. Soon after, the father of the supposedly dead man, played by Sam Shepard, begins stalking Hall’s character and his family. To this point Cold in July plays very much like Cape Fear and thrillers like it. But then matters change as Shepard and Hall’s characters are joined by a private investigator played by Don Johnson and the three men band together in an attempt to unravel the mystery. Their investigation leads them into very dark corners of the criminal underworld where they make terrible discoveries. Cold in July works in large part because of the way it manages the viewer’s expectations. This is neo-noir; the movie draws from the film noir classics of the 1940s like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Touch of Evil and gives them a contemporary twist. The filmmakers use the audience’s familiarity against them in a way that is very satisfying and consistently surprising. Drawing on that noir background, Cold in July has a lot of shadowy imagery; even scenes taking place in the daylight are overshadowed by a subtle darkness and the action sequences have a gritty and unseemly feel. Cold in July also succeeds because of its performances. The film is led by Michael C. Hall and he does not try to make his character a tough guy. Instead he is an otherwise peaceful man who fate has placed in a violent situation and Hall’s character is traumatized by taking a human life and further troubled by the violence that he uncovers. Sam Shepard is also impressive as the ex-con father; Shepard gives off an aura of violence but he is gradually revealed to be a much more sympathetic figure and the arc of his character is ultimately tragic. Johnson also makes a contribution as the private detective, mediating between the other two men and injecting some badly needed humor.
What Doesn’t: When Cold in July goes dark the moviemakers go very dark and in places this is an unpleasant film to watch. The violence of the movie is never gratuitous; as in David Fincher’s Se7en, the filmmakers of Cold in July create an oppressive tone and stage moments of brutality or its aftermath in such a way that the audience feels like they’ve seen much more violence than they actually have. But also like Se7en, the themes and subject matter of this film go beyond what mainstream viewers may expect. The trailer and other promotional materials for Cold in July do not hint at the twists and turns that the story takes and so viewers who come to this film based on what was advertised may find themselves unprepared for the direction that the movie takes. The intensity and surprises of Cold in July are to the film’s credit but it’s worth noting that this may not be to everyone’s taste. There is one major story problem that nags Cold in July. When the film opens, the conflict exists between Michael C. Hall and Sam Shepherd’s characters. But the story takes a new turn halfway through the film and Hall’s character no longer has a concrete motivation to stay involved. While there is reason enough for him to stick around, the circumstances of the story do not compel his character to act and so the drama of Cold in July loses some of the momentum that plays so well in the first half.
DVD extras: Commentary track, music score audio track, deleted scenes, featurettes, interviews, and trailers.
Bottom Line: Cold in July was released without much fanfare in 2014 but it is an extremely well made and well performed picture. It is unpleasant at times but it is also a smart movie about the trauma of violence.
Episode: #534 (March 22, 2015)