There are many movies that are critic-proof, and the Adam Sandler comedy Blended is the most recent example. No matter what the Rotten Tomato score or how vicious it’s ripped apart, Sandler and his producers can be reasonably certain that their latest will have modest-to-good box office returns. What’s more rare, and what should be celebrated accordingly, are movies that are the opposite of critic proof: movies that need champions so that they find the audience they deserve. Jim Mickle’s Cold in July is like that. It’s a superbly-directed thriller, one with rich performances, black comedy, and flashes of brutal violence. It deliberately apes John Carpenter-thrillers, including a score full of moody synthesizers. Cold in July is brimming with confidence, not ambition, so it’s unseemly fun from the get-go.
Based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, Mickle sets the action in Texas during the late 1980s. Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) is our hero, a husband and father who has a truly heinous haircut. One night he hears a home intruder, gets his gun, and fires at a masked man in his living room. He does not feel triumphant about it, although everyone in town is calling him a hero. The shooting attracts the attention of Russel (Sam Shepard), a dangerous ex-con who is the home invader’s father. Pushing the limits of the law, Russel stalks Richard and his family. It’s a little like Cape Fear, except something seems off about the man Richard killed. He starts to look into the death, to the chagrin of the police, and he gets ample help from a private investigator named Jim Bob (Don Johnson). Jim Bob may be pure Texas, but he’s a got a sharp investigator’s mind.
Part of the charm of Cold in July is how it constantly shifts what kind of movie it is. At first, it seems like a horror film with a gentle satire of suburban life. Then it seems like a paranoid conspiracy thriller, and then… well, I wouldn’t want to give too much away. Let’s just say that every transition is organic and never calls attention to itself. Like Mickle’s cannibal horror film We Are What We Are, there is a no-nonsense approach here. He uses a classic filmmaking technique, just like John Carpenter, so his ways of heightening suspense are simple, effective. There is a terrific home invasion sequence that recalls Halloween, except without the violent payoff, and that only heightens the tension. Richard exhumes a corpse in another grisly scene, yet Mickle never veers toward exploitation. Every character choice, no matter how crazy it seems in retrospect, unfolds with plausibility and logic.
In addition to the careful plotting, Mickle and his co-screenwriter Nick Damici draw an intriguing moral universe. Richard’s insatiable curiosity leads toward some dark corridors, the sort of places where an ordinary man would conclude that violence is the only acceptable answer. While Hall plays against type as an everyman, one for whom action is not easy, Shepard and Johnson are the real stars here. Russel is a vicious man but also a fair one, and it’s interesting to see Shepard’s little non-verbal adjustments that lead toward a friendship (of sorts) with Richard. Russel makes makes several difficult choices, including that could drive most toward madness, and Shepard is excellent as a man of action who must deal with genuine ambiguity. Johnson, on the other hand, steals with a show with a semi-comic performance that would reignite his career in a just world. Cold in July starts to sag in the middle – there is only so much that can be done with the Richard/Russel dynamics – and Jim Bob is burst of adrenaline at just the right time.
Cold in July begins and ends with a family man who is trying to do what is right. The intense climax has more atmosphere than incident, so every shot and step counts. It’s a neat inverse toward the beginning, with Mickle shifting his attention toward a conclusion that’s both tragic and inevitable. Weirdly, part of Cold in July resemble the flashier moments of True Detective, except without all the pretense. Mickle’s admirably refuses to leave the trappings of the genre where he’s working, which both makes his work approachable and the sort of stuff over which cinephiles obsess. This is not reinvention. This is a reminder that assured, careful filmmaking will never go out of style. If someone told the characters in Cold in July that, “Time is a flat circle,” they’d laugh in their face.