Directed by Jim Mickle
Joe R. Landsdale is one of those rare fiction writers whose work translates beautifully to the screen. Incident on and off a Mountain Road is one of my favorite episodes of “Masters of Horror,” and of course Bubba Ho-Tep is a cult classic. Now his novel Cold in July comes to the screen in an adaptation by Nick Damici (who also acts), as directed by indie darling Jim Mickle.
I’ve seen a couple of Mickle’s movies – Stake Land and We Are What We Are – and while I appreciated his unique style, I never fully liked his work. Until now. Perhaps it’s the Lansdale connection, or maybe it’s the truly committed performances by three excellent lead actors (Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson), but whatever the reason – the gritty, 80s-set Cold in July sent shivers down my spine from start to finish.
In an alternate universe, this is a movie that would have been a John Carpenter film based on a Tracy Letts play. In this universe, it’s almost as good. In spite of some need of disbelief suspension when it comes to the motivations and actions of the characters, not to mention plot holes, this movie is one engrossing thriller and a genuinely thought-provoking glimpse into the desperate mind.
Hall plays Richard Dane, a small-town Texas family man who shoots and kills an intruder in his living room during the middle of the night. At first he’s hailed as a hero, and it seems there will be no consequences. But guess what? The burglar’s violent dad (Shepard) has just been released from prison, and he wants justice. Many twists and turns later, a private investigator (Johnson) enters the mix. and the three men fall down a rabbit hole leading to, of all things, a snuff-film ring. It’s brutal, nightmarish stuff, to say the least. (And not cartoony, a la the Hostel films… first and foremost, Cold in July is a psychological, dramatic potboiler.)
Hall, fresh off the “Dexter” TV series, summons the kind of dark intensity one would expect of him. And then he kicks it up a notch. Vinessa Shaw, as his wife, checks her supermodel good looks at the door and transforms into a frumpy country-fried mom. Shepard is at his grizzly, prickly best, and Johnson reminds us why he’s been a screen idol since the early 70s (and I love his Gram Parsons-inspired rock star western wear).
Mickle is faithful to his longtime crew, and Cold in July bears the fruit of that loyalty with some fantastic flourishes in sight and sound. DP Ryan Samul uses warm, saturated hues which are soft, yet sharply detailed (one can see the dust motes in the air, even with a de-focused background). Jeff Grace’s original score stays true to the 80s setting, yet is a mesmerizing mix of old film noir and electronica.
While I can’t say it’s horror, Cold in July is one scary movie and well worth a good, long look. Maybe even two.
4 1/2 out of 5