From Neo-noir

Cold in July: Joe R. Lansdale’s Neo-Noir Scorches Onscreen

Cold in July. 2014. Dir. Jim Mickle. Written by Nick Damici, based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale.
Starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw, Wyatt Russell, and Nick Damici.
IFC Films.
Rated R. 109 minutes.

Fatherhood and morality are the central themes in Jim Mickle’s fantastic adaptation of the Joe R. Lansdale novel Cold in July. While the plot is centered around two fathers, both in different circumstances, morality is what eventually drives them: one worries about his own morality, the other is faced with the unquestionable lack of morals in his son. Though, the two fathers face different questions of morality, their path ends up as an identical course leading them into the dark heart of man and outside the confines of the law.

If someone broke into your home, threatening not only your own life but the lives of your family, and you shot them dead, would you be content walking away no questions asked? In the aftermath of a break-in where Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) was put in just such a situation, he begins to suspect the local law lead by Ray Price (Nick Damici) are misleading him as to the identity of the man he killed. After a dangerous encounter with Russel (Sam Shepard), the dead man’s ex-con father, Richard ends up saving the man’s life from the same cops lying to them both. Determined to figure out the truth of who Richard killed and the real whereabouts of Russel’s son, both men set out on a dangerous path crossing between law enforcement and the Dixie Mafia.
cold_in_julyThe scene most perfectly done is where Jim Bob (Don Johnson) and Richard watch a videotape revealing the whereabouts of Russel’s son. It shows him involved in some very despicable, rotten behaviour. Real immoral activity. First of all, there is a real savage moment, which Mickle really does well. Despite there being an opportunity for a bit of really graphic violence, the director strays from actually showing the moment of impact; we feel it much more, I think. Instead of actually seeing the violent shot, it cuts away right before the brutality. Furthermore, while Jim Bob and Richard are watching the video, Russel is upstairs trying to muster the mental energy to actually call his son. Earlier, Jim Bob had told him to stop being such a “cranky old bastard” and just call his son, but Russel refused at the time. So while we’re expecting him to end up calling his son, and where a lesser film might just have an emotional sort of scene to further the fatherhood theme, Cold in July pulls those heartstrings a little – yet Russel does not call him. We see the moments with the videotape, simultaneously Russel is about to possibly call, and just as we imagine he will, he hangs up the phone.
I was anticipating him giving in, not realizing what was being seen on the video downstairs. However, he sees it afterwards, and I was really glad he hadn’t called, or worse actually gotten in contact with his son. I’m not sure why I’m glad, but for me it was a subversion of my expectations. Plus, there is just nice suspense in the tension built up through this scene, from the juxtaposition of the video being watched & Russel next to the phone, to the videotape itself and how unsettlingly it was paced. Great, great moment in this film.
Cold_in_July_JPEGI know a lot of people mention the film’s score, and rightfully so because there is a very retro 80’s feel about the music. It really is excellent. Not only does it serve as a throwback-style score, the ambient nature of some pieces really lend themselves to the overall atmosphere and mood of the film. There are certain movies that try to force the whole electronic score. In the end this never works. On the other hand, Cold in July already plays like something I can imagine coming out of the 1980’s. With the electronic score, this mood really comes across. Without straining too hard in the costume/set/et cetera departments, the electronic score really helps this feel like a period piece. While there’s no outright stating this film takes place in any specific decade, the novel itself was written in 1989, and I think the movie (I’ve never personally read this novel) really puts across a feel of being from that time. The score is one way to push this forward without really focusing on coming across as an actual period piece. This sort of alleviates any pressure to fully conform to the decade, but the music helps to easily plant the story in the 80’s. It doesn’t hurt Hall has an awesomely awful hairdo from that era.
cold-in-july-3Usually a film, if it’s a good one, will have at least one real good performance. I can’t really think of a movie I loved where there’s not one performance I enjoyed. That’s sort of a nonsense thing to even expect. That being said, Cold in July sports three really big and spectacular roles played amazingly by Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, and Sam Shepard.
Cold-In-July-3cropIn particular, Hall does a fantastic job here. Especially considering his recent and arguably most recognized performance as Dexter (although I always remember him best as the meek David Fisher from HBO’s Six Feet Under). A lot of people would like to typecast Hall into leading roles where he’s this very controlled, dominant type who is full of confidence. In my mind, Hall can play anything, however, he does good work with very mild-mannered individuals, such as Richard Dane here. Also, where Dexter was a certain kind of rumination on morality, albeit from a much different angle, Cold in July shows us a more realistic version of morality in that Dane is a father, a framer by trade; a regular man. Hall plays his vulnerability clearly, openly. The turning point comes in the final 15-minutes of the film when Richard is in the midst of a gunfight. Now, we see the real transformation from where he began, as a man incapable of steadily firing a gun – when he kills the intruder, he looks at the gun surprised, and even more so once discovering he shot the guy right through his eye socket. In this finale, Richard is a confident man, having discovered his own morality through disposing of, what most of would see as, human waste. Hall played this so well – there’s a look he gives, almost as if right to the camera but not, as he walks away from a freshly killed man. Perfect.

It’s hard not to mention Shepard and Johnson, as well. Shepard was phenomenal. As usual, though. I really love him, both as an actor and writer. What a great talent. There is a fantastic moment in the finale where there’s this ironic and bittersweet moment (SPOILER AHEAD) – Russel shoots his own son to prevent him from killing Richard. The irony comes from how the film started with Russel stalking Richard because he believed him to have killed his son. The bittersweet kicks in when Russel tells Freddy that he is his father. Freddy asks if he really is, and Russel replies “Far as I know” before pulling the trigger right in front of his son’s two eyes. Really great acting.
Johnson was a supporting role, though with a decent bit of screentime compared with Hall and Shepard. Regardless, he is worth every penny. There’s something about the character of Jim Bob I really loved. I think it’s because he could have been a very stereotypical Dixie-type, and he was in certain subtle senses. But the fact Johnson plays him without a hillbilly yeehaw in his voice and step, the fact he doesn’t ham it up in this way, really does the character, and the film overall, a lot of justice. Johnson is just straight up cool as Jim Bob. I don’t think there’s anyone else I’d rather see playing this role. Not to mention he is a regular bad ass when the action-packed finale of the film comes barreling at you.
cold-in-july-2This is one of my favourite crime-thrillers in recent memory. It’s also a really great neo-noir. One of the better examples for a long while. The great performances by all three of the top billed stars really helps, however, Cold in July contains more than just that, including a very moody electronic score, a tight script, and the fact Joe Lansdale’s novel served as a basis for the screenplay helps an enormous amount. He is a great storyteller. Nick Damici, who adapted the novel into a screenplay, is a screenwriter to watch; I’ve enjoyed his previous work. He and Mickle do well together. There’s also some fun, gnarly violence in the finale of Cold in July to really tickle the hounds out there. Even a few interesting, subtle moments, such as those including revisiting the initial murder; shots of Richard and his family on the couch right where the dead man was killed and the blood sprayed on the wall, and quiet little bits like those (such as the very final shot) juxtaposed with the other highly violent scenes.
Check this out as soon as possible. I can’t wait to get my hands on a Blu ray release.