Cold In July


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Michael C Hall in Cold In July
"Be prepared for scenes you finish in your own head to haunt you." | Photo: Ryan Samul

Cold In July, which will be screening in the 2014 Directors' Fortnight at Cannes, is not for the faint of heart. Be prepared for scenes you finish in your own head to haunt you.

Who is who shifts and as much as Jim Mickle tickles us in Cold In July with conventions, he also molds his very own imposing scenes to add to the genre. A close-up of a painting in a living room at night in East Texas in 1989 sets the mood in his inventive fathers and sons, gangsters and detectives thriller. Three unlikely male Charlie's Angels transcend revenge.

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Richard Dane, played by Michael C Hall in an authentically unflattering Eighties mullet, interrupts a burglar in his house and shoots him because a clock strikes at the wrong moment. Dane, whose work is at a picture framing shop, becomes the town's hero overnight.

The police tell him that the intruder he killed was called Freddy Russell, a wanted felon. Dane and his wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) scrub the splattered blood off the walls and the painting before their little son wakes up the next morning to go to school. Showing us the clean-up is an example of what makes the film captivating. Absurdly gory, the sequence is essentially about love and the protection of a child.

The logic of crime thrillers stands back behind questions of parental responsibility. Dane's torn emotions about what happened to him and what he did that night, just like a classic, if terribly dressed, Hitchcock hero, are merely the beginning of his transformation into a real man.

At the local cemetery, birds chirping, gravediggers digging, Ben Russell, the slain man's father, he himself a recently paroled felon, appears, looming over Dane's car. "Yeah," he says, in the sweet tone of menace that only Sam Shepard can produce so effortlessly. He adds "that was a nice picture of your family in the paper. Your boy looks like you".

At this point we enter Cape Fear terrain with Shepard in the Robert Mitchum or Robert De Niro part, terrorising Gregory Peck or Nick Nolte's families respectively - or so we think, because a minor filmmaker might rely on copying the Cape Fear masters, J. Lee Thompson (1962) and Martin Scorsese (1991).

In Cold In July, based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale, with the screenplay by Mickle and Nick Damici, we stay with the frightened Dane family for only a short while longer. Ryan Samul's cinematography makes details stick with you. Wife Ann prepares a salad with huge chunks of green pepper, the parents talk as though their son has no ears. The little boy wears pajamas with a rodeo pattern, he sits on the table. How could any harm come to him? And indeed, the story takes a new turn. There is something wrong with the man who was shot. Was he really Russell's son?

Dane and the elder Russell have to find out together. In order to do so, and to sidestep a possibly corrupt police department, the unlikely team of fathers hires Jim Bob Luke, a private detective from Houston, who drives the flashiest red car in snazzy cowboy outfits and whose real calling in life is pig farming. He is played by Don Johnson and if ever there was an unlikely spark in counterintuitive casting, it is between him and Shepard.

The three men, pigs in the background, discover a conspiracy so big and horrendous that it changes the tone once again and the film enters Claire Denis territory. Faulkner's corn cob in Denis' Bastards is matched in pure terror by a pornography ring's videotape disguised as sports practice.

Sam Shepard told me a few months ago that his own writings currently aim at a deal with the Devil - Cold In July meticulously unveils a man discovering that his son is the Devil.

Reviewed on: 13 May 2014
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After killing a home intruder, a small town Texas man's life unravels into a dark underworld of corruption and violence.
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Read more Cold In July reviews:

Amber Wilkinson ****

Director: Jim Mickle

Writer: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle, based on the novel by Joe R Lansdale

Starring: Michael C Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard, Vinessa Shaw, Nick Damici, Wyatt Russell

Year: 2014

Runtime: 109 minutes

Country: US, France

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