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Twists, Turns and Killin’

'Cold in July' is good, gritty stuff

May 27, 2014, 12:00 am

Cold in July, director Jim Mickle’s adaptation of Joe R Lansdale’s novel, is a stark, gritty production and a powerful example of what happens when the screenplay is one step ahead of the audience. The movie twists and turns and thwarts expectations, and it’s a solid, if grim, viewing experience.

Richard Dane (Michael C Hall) is awakened by his wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) in the middle of the night. She heard something. Then he hears it, too, and he grabs his father’s pistol from a shoebox in the closet and sets out to investigate.

Stopping by his son’s room to check on him, Richard makes his way to the living room and surprises a burglar. The burglar shines a flashlight in Richard’s face, and Richard accidentally fires the pistol, killing the intruder instantly.

The intruder’s death is about the last moment in Cold in July that’s concrete. That is to say, we know Richard fired, and we know he killed an intruder. What happens next becomes the first in a series of twists. Local cop Ray Price (Nick Damici) tells Richard the intruder is a guy named Freddy, a lowlife with outstanding warrants better dead than alive.

Unfortunately, Freddy’s father Ben Russel (Sam Shepard) is recently released from prison—it seems from a long stretch—and decides, upon learning who killed his son, to make life difficult for the Danes. He breaks into the Dane home and leaves live ammunition in the kid’s room. When the police catch Ben, Richard begins to think the police aren’t telling him everything about the case—and that maybe he didn’t kill Freddy, but someone else—though his demands for answers are rebuffed.

Cold in July has three distinct sections. First, the shooting and its aftermath. Second, the question as to whom Richard actually killed. And third, what Richard is going to do about it. Don Johnson shows up as a wily private eye and pig farmer named Jim Bob who owes Ben a favor, and Johnson’s ease at playing a charming lout goes a long way in smoothing over some of the rougher story patches.

For example, Richard, who seems perfectly reasonable, becomes more and more unhinged. Not like a crazy person, and not like someone who accidentally killed someone in his own home, but because the screenplay demands it. Plus, Hall may not have been the perfect choice for Richard. The mullet he’s been given looks odd on him, and Hall is such a mannered performer that Richard seems a little too studied, a little too put together, even when Richard’s choices lead him down darker and darker roads.

That’s why it’s good to have Johnson and Shepard (who’s nothing short of sensational). The score sounds wonderfully like a 1985 horror film’s (even if Cold in July is set in 1989), and the violence is appropriate, even though it’s occasionally overwrought with symbolism.

Cold in July isn’t perfect, but the direction is assured and the outcome appropriately dark. Damici is excellent, too, and Wyatt Russell (Kurt and Goldie Hawn’s kid) does well in a small, flashy role. Flaws and all, this movie is really worth seeing.

Directed by Jim Mickle
With Hall, Shepard and Johnson
Jean Cocteau Cinema
109 min.


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