A rich, pulpy, synth-infused southern thriller, Jim Mickle’s Cold In July is a brutish neo-noir homage to the cult classics of old.
Cold In July
Texas Cold’em by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Jim Mickle’s fantastic Texan neo-noir is a genuflection, a reverential cinematic high-five to the films of a bygone era. While the prevailing inspirational touchstone of Cold in July are the films of John Carpenter, it also elicits the stylised violence and thematic backbone of Peckinpah films of the ’60s and ’70s. Based on the 1989 novel by Joe R. Landsale, the young director enigmatically sparks an exciting and suspenseful film from a handful of seemingly archetypal characters. Mickle’s film frequently (and gleefully) subverts genre expectations by flipping familiarity on its head, and while on occasion the narrative trips over its various twists and turns – you’re having much too much fun to care.
Set in the late ’80s, Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) is a simple Texan picture framer who is woken one night by the sound of an intruder in his home. When he discovers a masked intruder, the armed Richard is startled and shoots the intruder to death in panic. Hailed as a hero in his small town, Richard becomes suspicious when the police appear to overzealously dismiss the murder as self defence despite his protestations that the man was unarmed. At first, Richard is terrorised by the deceased’s grieving ex-con father Ben Russell (Sam Shepard), but before long both men are inextricably embroiled in a murky world of sex, psychopaths and vigilantism.
Jim Mickle’s fourth feature film exhibits all the hallmarks of a filmmaker with innate technical savvy and an obvious penchant for cult films. His ability as an all-round filmmaker is evidenced in a CV that boasts an impressive array of experience ranging from grip, storyboard artist, visual effects artist, writer and editor. Opening with the title of the film in John Carpenter’s favoured Albertus font, the combination of a menacing synth score together with the minimalistic lighting of a darkened home is reminiscent of Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween. Mickle’s visual flair is beautifully illustrated in the opening five minutes when a close-up of Richard’s face, aghast, smoothly transitions into a pull-back of the dead body laying before him. Maintaining this tight and unflinching focus on Hall’s hysteria, the close-up shots forge an inescapable sense of panic in the first forty minutes or so – especially with the appearance of Sam Shepard’s vengeful ex-con, Ben Russell, soon after.
Russell’s ability to appear and disappear is almost supernatural, like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, the sense of foreboding and inevitability in his stalking is genuinely unsettling. At this point of the film you probably think that you’ve got the plot pegged, but you don’t. When Richard suspects that local sheriff, Ray Price (Nick Damici who also co-wrote the screenplay), is too quick to put the home invasion/murder to bed, he is compelled to turn from reluctant hero to reluctant vigilante. The shift in Richard’s values and motivation is slightly hard to swallow at first, but it’s easy to overlook such a narrative blip when you are just as eager to see where his path takes him.
To unravel the conspiracy, Ben contacts old friend and private investigator come pig farmer, Jim Bob (Don Johnson). Hall, Shepard and Johnson are a well-balanced and entertaining trio that bring stoicism, heroism and a healthy dose of humour to the film. The inherent sense of doom of the opening act is alleviated by Johnson’s arrival as Jim Bob, his natural charm and charisma explodes from the screen to offset Richard and Ben’s suffocating plight. Johnson hasn’t lost a step of his trademark swagger, and his vigour, positivity and humour is often a light in the dark of a film that prods at the seedy underbelly of Texan suburbia.
Despite what can only be described as a show-stealing performance from Johnson, Michael C. Hall has never been better as the conflicted protagonist. Hall inhabits the character with such intensity and aplomb that the rather large shadow cast by his television persona, Dexter Morgan, melts away in the Texan heat. Scrutinised and magnified by Mickle’s extreme close-ups, his performance is one that necessitates the use of every sinew in his troubled face. In addition to this, Hall looks every inch the part of backwater town Texan – from the misjudged mullet, the scraggled moustache and the sloppy wardrobe.
It would be a shame to ruin the thrilling third act of the film by giving anything away, suffice to say that it goes down a very dark path of human depravity and culminates in one of the most gripping and perfectly stylised gunfights that I’ve seen in film this year. It’s also important to recognise the importance of Jeff Grace’s inspired score. Similar to many other elements of the film, it shares obvious parallels to John Carpenter’s scores, and elevates the unnerving nature of the film. The malevolent and relentless tap and tinkle of synthesizer harks back to the likes of Halloween and even Brad Fiedel’s The Terminator score – building tension and giving fear its own distinctive calling card.
Ultimately, the amorphous narrative of Cold in July is like an origami fortune teller in the hands of director Jim Mickle; it’s a dynamic, noirish beast of a film that preys upon your expectations and shoots them down at every opportunity. Mickle’s film proudly and unapologetically stands upon the shoulders of giants; Carpenter, Raimi and Peckinpah to name a few, but instead of being overburdened by recognisable references, it revels in the chaos and thrives in the inspiration. Mickle has created an entertaining and gripping homage to the films of the ’80s that is more than the sum of its parts. It’s like a Tex-Mex dish; contemporary cinematic ingredients infused with the more traditional balls-to-the-wall cult cinema of old.
Cold In July is released on 27th June 2014 in the UK