Cold in July (IFC Films, NR)

film cold-in-july smThe three principal actors are so good, I can forgive the derivative nature of the plot.



film cold-in-july

I’ve been a huge fan of Michael C. Hall ever since Six Feet Under, and his performances in Dexter and a theatrical production of Terence McNally’s Corpus Christi only deepened my appreciation. I’m happy to say that the streak continued with Cold in July, in which Hall excels at playing a role I haven’t seen him do before: an ordinary family man in small-town Texas.

Jim Mickle’s film wastes no time getting going. Richard Dane (Hall) is awakened by noises in his house, finds a masked intruder, and shoots him, spreading blood and guts all over his family’s living room. To his fellow townspeople, this turn of events makes Dane something of a hero, whereas before they weren’t sure he measured up to their idea of a real man. (One of his friends congratulates Dane while noting that “I didn’t think you had it in you.”)

While you might respond along the lines of “Thanks, I guess,” Dane is disturbed by his part in causing another man’s death, even if that man had invaded his home while he, his wife, and child were fast asleep. It particularly bothers him that the would-be burglar was unarmed, although of course he had no way to know that in a dark house. The local police assure Dane that the dead man is a known felon, Freddy Russell, and good riddance to bad rubbish.

Unfortunately, Russell had a father who also has a record a mile long, and is just getting out on parole. Ben (Sam Shephard) isn’t interested in niceties about self-defense and such, and begins stalking Dane and his family, Cape Fear–style: complimenting Dane on his family’s picture in the paper, turning up at his son’s school—careful to not do anything he could be arrested for, while also making it clear that he could if he wanted to.

Cold in July takes an abrupt turn after the first third, when Dane begins to suspect the man he shot is not who police say he was, and he and Shephard form one of the world’s least likely investigative teams. Things get even less improbable, but a lot more fun, when Don Johnson shows up as PI Jim Bob Luke, doing a sort of Texas version of his Miami Vice character (wearing lots more sequins and driving a red convertible that would have warmed Clinton Judd’s heart).

For all the action (and there is plenty) in Cold in July, it’s really more of a psychological suspense movie, and the three principal actors are so good that I can forgive the derivative nature of the plot (The Big Sleep gets more than a nod, as does an urban legend about a particular type of “special interest” film) and the occasional improbability of the latter two-thirds of the film. It also helps that Cold in July is very stylishly shot by Webster University alum Ryan Samul, and that the details of hair and costumes are also right: Hall wears a mullet and an awkward mustache, for instance, which entirely fits the uncertainty of his character. The soundtrack by Jeff Grace is also extremely effective.

Cold in July is certainly derivative, and I’m not sure it fulfills its apparent desire to say something about the nature American masculinity, but it’s an enjoyable action flick. Above all, the performances of Hall, Shephard, and Johnson carry the film, even when the screenplay is not quite fulfilling its share of the bargain. | Sarah Boslaugh

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