02nd Jun2014

‘Cold in July’ Review

by Jack Kirby

Stars: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw, Wyatt Russell, Nick Damici, Lanny Flaherty, Kristin Griffith, Dorothea Swiac, Joe Lanza, Rachel Zeiger-Haag | Written by Jim Mickle, Nick Damici, Joe R. Lansdale | Directed by Jim Mickle

cold-july-cast

In the middle of the night, a sound alerts a young couple that an intruder has entered their home. Husband, father and picture frame salesman Richard (Michael C. Hall) confronts the burglar and, out of terror more than anything else, shoots him dead. Shortly afterwards Ben (Sam Shepard), the father of the man Richard shot, makes contact with him and threatens his family. Thus begins a thrillingly tense game of cat and mouse that will, of course, change the lives of all involved.

Except that this only covers the first forty-five minutes or so of the film. The narrative runs off in an unexpected direction and takes a twisty path towards its conclusion though to elaborate on the course it takes would be unfair to the viewer. The film is directed by Jim Mickle, whose previous two films, Stake Land and We Are What We Are, I had really enjoyed, particularly the latter. Cold in July breaks entirely with the horror genre in which Mickle had previously worked exclusively within (though We Are What We Are could certainly be described as a transitional shift in this respect) and is a hard-boiled crime thriller, though its representation of a dark underbelly of American society owes a considerable debt to Southern Gothic elements, as did his previous work. The script was adapted by Mickle and Joe R Lansdale from one of the latter’s novels.

Watching the film, I was impressed with its quick pace. Having only read the briefest of synopsis, I had expected the film to spend longer over the immediate fallout of the shooting, perhaps becoming a courtroom drama exploring the right to defend oneself in one’s own home (I got that dead wrong). As such, I felt that the story was whipping past at a rate of knots. In retrospect, I see that this was to accommodate a much larger story.

Unfortunately, when the plot does diverge from the anticipated path, it does so in a manner that does not feel to me to be wholly organic. Richard begins on a path that sees him turn from a man who was physically shaking with fear by the very act of holding a gun in the film’s opening scene to one that embraces violence to achieve what he sees as justice. The friend who accompanied me to the screening likened this transformation to that of Walter White in Breaking Bad and whilst thematically that’s an apt comparison, the reason I like Breaking Bad so much is because each step Walter takes towards outright villainy feels like a logical reaction to what has gone before it (within the context of the programme and to a point, of course). In Cold in July, the development of Richard’s character and the direction of the plot often seems fuelled by random, illogical or unconvincing moments. For example, he sees an important event that he is not supposed to after taking a late-night car trip, for reasons that seem rather unlikely; he also continues a working relationship with two characters in order to find answers to questions that they have no intention of asking and at one point, important plot details that drive the narrative on are discovered by character ‘making some calls, which isn’t just annoying but lazy. The film works really well in its opening act as the tension is derived from a very realistic portrayal of a dramatic but broadly commonplace event – homes get broken into every day and this could happen to you. As such, that the film’s second and third acts rely on suspension of disbelief is disappointing.

These inconsistencies in logical progression coincide with the introduction of private investigator and pig farmer Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson), who also provides comic relief. He is funny and Johnson plays the part well, but the introduction of outright humour was an unexpected distraction that, coinciding with the less believable movements in the plot, created an uneven tone that ultimately caused me to lose faith in the film. Had the humour been present from the start (such as in the Coen Brothers’ thrillers and films like Headhunters), I may have been more forgiving of its wilder turns.

Which is a shame as there is a lot to like about it. The cast are uniformly good, with the central trio of Hall, Shepard and Johnson convincing as their characters. The mood and atmosphere of the first part of the film are wonderfully poised and the themes of escalating violence, revenge, justice and the distance between what is legally right and what is morally right, matched by some repeated religious symbolism are all very interesting and engaging. The film does enough for me to recommend it, though with caution. Its main problem is ultimately not living up to the standards it sets out for itself at the start, which I guess in conclusion is far from the worst criticism you could level at a film.

Cold in July is out now in the US. The film opens in cinemas across the Uk from June 27th.

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