“Cold in July,” asserts its page on the IFC Entertainment website, “is hard to shake as an east Texas summer.” And as I exited the cinema on Thursday night, I was certainly inclined to agree – the film and its thoroughly intriguing storyline were certainly still playing on my mind long after the credits had begun to roll. Adapted from Joe R. Lansdale’s novel of the same name, director Jim Mickle’s latest offering follows a picture framer named Richard Danes (Michael C. Hall) as he struggles to deal with the aftermath of his shooting of a burglar who had entered his family’s home in the night. What we quickly learn, however, is that this is only the tip of the iceberg – the truth of the matter runs much deeper, and although it initially appears as if we’re experiencing a typical (but nonetheless wholly effective) thriller, it doesn’t take too long for events to take a turn towards the unexpected.
Whilst being subjected to some incredibly intense psychological torture at the hands of the apparent father (Sam Shepard) of the young man that he shot, Richard’s suspicions begin to mount and soon enough it becomes apparent that this is bigger than him, and much, much bigger than the anonymous thug that he gunned down during the movie’s tense opening sequence. It takes some amateur detective work and a whole lot of persuasion, but eventually the two become unlikely allies and, aided by a private investigator named Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson), they begin tugging at a thread that transforms this movie into a visceral tale of revenge.
This two-pronged approach to storytelling is Cold in July‘s greatest strength whilst simultaneously being the most significant obstacle that unfortunately guarantees it will never be considered a true classic. Whilst the twisty-turny nature of the plot guarantees that you’re in no danger of lapsing into a distracted haze as it plays itself out – I was kept guessing from start to finish – it also carries with it something of an underlying feeling of disjointedness and uncomfortably jarring contrast. Perhaps The Irish Times‘ Donald Clarke puts it best as he opines that “it would be lovely to see the missing halves of these two intriguing pictures.” It’s a sentiment that holds a significant amount of validity, and yet one I’m also somewhat compelled to disagree with – taking the two halves of the film as evidence I’m not entirely convinced that they carry enough narrative weight to stand up on their own as full features. So perhaps, then, this fusing of two very distinct genres into one movie is actually a “pro”, if only just.
It’s a twist-laden journey that will have you second-guessing just about everything that pops up on the screen, and this speaks to the strength of the screenplay written by Mickle and Nick Damici – however, that’s not to say that there aren’t a couple of things it needs to be picked up on for. There are a few occasions where, rather than relying on the phenomenal acting chops of their three leading men (seriously, Sam Shepard kicks so much ass in this movie and the man is seventy years old) to carry things forward at a natural pace, the writers instead turn to some pretty tired tropes to drive things on instead, a tactic at its most immersion-breaking during the “revenge” act when an anger-induced kick to the rear end of a car just so happens to pop it open and reveal a conveniently-placed MacGuffin lying within. It’s all a little bit too obvious.
Despite all that, though, Cold in July is, at its core, a genuinely tense and gripping movie in both of its wildly differing incarnations. It’s a well-acted and, barring a few lapses, largely well-written piece that offers a refreshing change of pace from some of the more big-budget, mainstream alternatives. It’s a far from perfect offering but it still does enough fundamentally different things to elevate it from the competition. Without wishing to spoil too much of the potential impact, there are some truly visceral scenes in there that are sure to leave you pondering this movie’s intricacies following its fantastically-paced conclusion.