Tuesday, June 3, 2014

In the Heat of the Night: "Cold in July" a tasty cross-genre potboiler

Cold in July (2014)  
109 min., rated R.

From his visually solid, ultimately just-okay 2011 vampire indie "Stake Land" to the even-better 2013 cannibalistic-family drama "We Are What We Are," talented writer-director Jim Mickle's sole output is more than enough reason to want to keep track of his career and see what his next move will be. Based on cult author Joe R. Lansdale's novel and written by Mickle and his writing partner Nick Damici, "Cold in July" is a forcefully compelling, assuredly crafted, and always surprising crime neo-noir, taking its cues from Sam Peckinpah, early Michael Mann, and Joel and Ethan Coen, which aren't bad influences if you ask anyone. Mickle is a fine craftsman when it comes to visual flair and economical storytelling, and this time, his third film has such an electric pulse and all the flavor of a nastily tasty potboiler that feels fresh. What is so unpredictably satisfying is the way "Cold in July" keeps changing, rejecting the obvious, and taking the viewer to unexpected places.

East Texas, 1989. Family man Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) is awoken by his wife, Ann (Vinessa Shaw), in the middle of one balmy night to someone breaking into their home. He nervously loads his revolver and ends up splattering the intruder's head over the living room walls. Soon enough, the news that the timid Richard shot an unarmed man in his home gets all over town, where he's congratulated for braving such an act and assured by a detective (Nick Damici) that it was just self-defense, but he's not proud. Then he's paid a visit by the dead man's recently paroled father, Ben Russell (Sam Shepard), before the old man begins hanging around Richard's young son's school and indirectly threatening him and even breaking into their house himself. Something isn't right, though, when Richard finds a missing person's flyer of Ben's son (Wyatt Russell) whom he supposedly killed and, after a set of circumstances that are less coincidental than they might sound here, spots Ben being left on the railroad tracks with an oncoming track coming. What the hell could be going on? Somewhere in all of this shows up Houston pig farmer Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson), who happens to moonlight as a private eye in a bright red Cadillac convertible. 

Relative to David Cronenberg's more-pretentious "A History of Violence" from 2005, director Mickle actually does the auteur one better in examining masculinity, fathers and sons, and the power of violence without making any bold, italicized and underlined political statement. While stories about clear-cut heroes and villains are never going to lose their place in the world, "Cold in July" spins a triptych-like yarn that hopscotches crime and punishment, good and evil, and right and wrong. Richard Dane is positioned as the eyes and ears of the audience, our point of reference, and while it might be a large pill to swallow that the shell-shocked Richard would set out with Ben and Jim Bob, he must see it as a way of keeping good karma and just plain old curiosity. Diametrically opposite from his eight-season turn as Dexter Morgan, Michael C. Hall makes for a credibly vulnerable milquetoast and everyman with a mullet and mustache. Somewhat channeling Robert Mitchum from 1962's "Cape Fear," Sam Shepard is a chilling but broken-hearted presence as Ben Russell. At the top of his game playing Jim Bob, Don Johnson is an oily, slippery, but charming badass and brings a jolt of larger-than-life juice once he shows up. Also, playing Richard's schoolmarm wife Ann, Vinessa Shaw is only utilized in the first two acts, but she definitely feels lived-in to this world.

Seamlessly zigging and zagging from taut home-invasion horror to an off-kilter buddy road picture that subverts expectations and then a grindhouse revenge-thriller with sordid twists that will have your heart in your mouth, "Cold in July" is a shrewdly tense and darkly funny cross-genre of Southern pulp. The echoey, ominous electronic music score by composer Jeff Grace is like a nod to John Carpenter's unmatched "Halloween" synthesizer (as is the font for the credits), plus insistently eerie piano notes, and that is always a good thing. The cinematography by Ryan Samul is sharp and stylish without being flashy, every frame atmospheric and stained with either grit or neon colors. The film is not particularly deep, and the screenplay leaves the early police involvement dangling as a MacGuffin, but things never go where you expect them to, without the narrative ever boiling over or the tone ever feeling confused, and the ending holds a cathartic power. Do yourself a favor and seek this one out.

Grade: B +

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