Cold in July is a gripping indie thriller which gleefully hops genres, from horror to revenge Western to buddy movie. It features terrific performances from its three main actors, with Don Johnson stealing the show as a cowboy pig farmer private eye. In adapting Joe R. Lansdale’s novel, director/writer team Jim Mickle and Nick Damici have fun referencing films such as Cape Fear and Halloween, and the score is clearly influenced by John Carpenter.
In East Texas, 1989, Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall, of Dexter TV fame) is awoken by his wife, who fears an intruder has broken into their house. When Dane accidently kills the man, he attracts the attention of his father, Ben Russell (a grizzled Sam Shepherd), out on parole from prison. ‘A nice picture of your family in the paper,’ drawls Russell. ‘Your boy looks just like you’. Fearful for the safety of his young son, Dane tries to make his home more secure. But the avenging father keeps popping up like a bogeyman.
In these scenes the film’s tension is cranked up by a good old fashioned storm and a plinky raindrop piano riff, which morphs into ominous synth heartbeats as Russell materialises in a lightning flash in the boy’s bedroom. Corny, but effective.
As Dane seeks police protection we identify with him as an ordinary person to whom something extraordinary has happened. As a cop says to him, it’s ‘a scary thing for a man like you … a civilian’. Mild-mannered Dane’s unconvincing moustache and mini-mullet identify him as a bit of a wimp. He is slightly hen-pecked by his schoolteacher wife, who doesn’t like him cussing. In the part Hall looks like a cross between Kevin Costner and Ethan Hawke.
When Dane sees a Wanted poster at the police station he realises Russell’s son was not the man he shot. So who was he? And why are the police lying and trying to kill Russell? Dane eventually teams up with him and they bring in private detective Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson) to help them find out the truth.
Jim Bob’s arrival in his loud red convertible, pimped with Texas cow-horns, vanity number plate, and big furry dice, threatens to unbalance the film, but whilst the tone (and genre) changes, things also become a lot more colourful and fun. In his embroidered cowboy shirts and white Stetson Johnson brings a cool charisma to the screen. His is a surprisingly restrained performance, given his garish accessories.
From then on Cold in July becomes more of a buddy film, as the plot twists and turns on its dark journey to murder and mayhem, via the Dixie mafia and video nasties. The three amigos become self-appointed sheriffs whose mission is to clean up the filth that they have uncovered. In the process Dane becomes more macho, donning a brown leather waistcoat as he totes his shotgun in Sam Peckinpah slow-mo. Despite these occasional stylistic indulgences Michael C. Hall is excellent in the central role. He holds the film together and his gradual transformation from wimp to warrior, as he gets a taste for excitement, is skilfully handled.
Above all, the film seems to be about masculinity, about how men need to prove themselves by shooting guns and kicking ass. Cold in July is no Fight Club, but the climactic orgy of violence (which also brings to mind Taxi Driver) has a similar wishful-thinking, male fantasy feel to it. Its final image – Dane lying in bed, safely back in the bosom of his family – makes us wonder whether the whole crazy caper was just a dream.