Last year, Jim Mickle made himself a Sundance name with We Are What We Are, a bleak yet fun twist on the horror genre. He returns this year with Cold in July – an adaptation of a popular Joe R. Lansdale crime novel – to mix up genres once again. Fresh off the Dexter circuit, Michael C. Hall plays Richard Dane, a man whose ordinary life slowly spirals to a dark place when he fatally shoots an intruder who breaks into his family’s home in the middle of the night. Cue giggles from Dexter fans at Dane’s futile attempts to clean blood from the family’s wall.
A tonal shift halfway through the film makes much of the plot hard to summarize without destroying the experience of actually watching the movie. While searching for the truth behind the break-in, Dane finds himself on a slippery slope, which leads him to form uneasy friendships in low places. Sam Shepard and Don Johnson co-star as parolee Russel and investigator Jim Bob, who form a seedy sort of alliance with our lead. Shepard, Johnson, and Hall all foil each other magnetically, adding a solid amount of comic relief to the film as it grows more disturbing.
Occasionally, Cold in July seems a bit far from reality, particularly as the film progresses further into its unsettling subplot, as the story’s beginning (and hey – the characters, like Dane’s wife and son) seem to trail off the screen and out of Dane’s mind. While some may find this genre shift jarring, it both keeps the film fresh and keeps you far from guessing the ending. Much like We Are What We Are, Mickle’s 2014 entry is far from obvious.
Hall brings the kind of dark intensity that one would expect of the Dexter star. In Cold in July, the actor is an everyman and a far cry of his most famous character, but that makes his performance no less compelling. It’s easy to compare the role of Dane to the role of Dexter as they are both killers, but to say they have further similarities is missing the mark of both the film and the show. Hall’s performance, particularly during the opening scene and the more action-heavy sequences that lead up to the film’s ending, is some of his best non-Dexter work, on par with his most demanding scenes in Six Feet Under.
The film embodies the ‘80s with its setting, score and costuming, right down to Hall’s almost-mullet and mustache. In a very clear nod to John Carpenter and other horror maestros of the decade, the film opens with a bold, block letter opening credit font. Cold in July is not a horror film, despite the clear talent Mickle demonstrated for the genre with We Are What We Are, but it certainly would feel right at home nestled in with ’80s frightfests.
Vinessa Shaw plays Dane’s wife, who is given little to do in the film, outside of demonstrating fear during the break-in and becoming angered when her husband picks an ugly couch to replace their blood-soaked previous piece. In such a character-driven film, some sort of well-written female presence could have really enriched the crew of men, although I appreciate that a woman isn’t thrown into the script just for the sake of it. (And I’m assuming the film’s gender balance is true to the source material – so fair enough.)
In the end, Cold in July is a unique blend of neo-noir and glorious ‘80s action with a refreshing twist. Hall, Shepard and Johnson’s performances elevate the film, thanks to layered characters and clever dialogue. It might be hard to file this one into a specific genre, but there’s not much of a need to. Like Mickle’s We Are What We Are, Cold in July is a delightfully different experience.