I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Cold in July

tn_coldinjulyCOLD IN JULY is a hell of a thriller, a small town Texas crime story with a first act that provides enough story to turn into a standard movie, then adds an odd little swerve. And then a couple more, and eventually you’re down a road you never could’ve predicted. But not in a crazy twisty kind of way. More like the strange, almost random little turns that life takes.

It’s based on a book by Joe R. Lansdale, adapted by director Jim Mickle and his co-writer Nick Damici. After this they adapted Lansdale into the TV show Hap and Leonard.

It all starts in a very simple and human way in East Texas, 1989. Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall, GAMER) is woken up by his wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw, LADYBUGS, EYES WIDE SHUT) because she hears a noise. Like many Americans, especially Texans, he has a gun in the house in case something like this happens. But he’s not the hunting or target shooting type, and this sort of thing hasn’t happened to him before, so he nervously struggles to get the bullets in and tiptoes out to the living room scared as shit. And he sees that yes, someone has broken into his house.

Richard points the gun at the guy. The guy stares at him. What now? Before he can figure that out, his shaky finger accidentally pulls the trigger, shoots right through the dude’s eye.

This is (almost) the macho scenario that you’re supposed to imagine when you talk about having a gun for protection. Richard’s asshole mailman sure likes to talk about it like it was something to be proud of. “I heard you got one.” But to Richard it’s a tragedy, a failure, and a humiliation as the police officer, Price (a great performance by the writer, Damici), offers his sympathy in a way that subtly questions his manhood. He’ll be emasculated more as his problems escalate, Ann questions his actions and he retreats into a masculine stubbornness familiar to anyone who has experienced or witnessed the phenomenon of “the doghouse.”

mp_coldinjulyHe doesn’t even think it should be considered self defense, but Price convinces him it’s fine and gets him off the hook. So he and his family try to move on. There’s a montage of Richard and Ann cleaning the blood out of the living room, mischievously set to a soul ballad called “Forgetting You” by James Carr. “I done you wrong / but now you are gone / what can I do? / Don’t make me live the rest of my life / Forgetting you.”

Okay, so having killed a guy in their house is gonna mess them up forever. It’s a life changing event, but it’s not enough for a thriller yet, is it? Never fear. We see where this is going when guilty Richard is asking about the dead man and his burial. Oh yeah, don’t worry, Price says. He doesn’t have any family. None at all. Absolutely nobody to miss the guy. I mean unless I guess you could count his dad Ben Russel who just got out on parole. But other than that, nobody.

Russel (Sam Shepard, OUT OF THE FURNACE) immediately starts stalking the family and threatening their young son Jordan (Brogan Hall). Price is no help at first, but once it’s proven to be a real threat he comes through with surprising thoroughness for a small town police department (even placing an ex-Special Forces guy inside the house to protect them). There are some good scares and some bonding between the victim and the more manly cop and you feel good about them working together to solve this problem.

Suddenly Price calls and says Russel got picked up over the border and everything’s cool except Richard owes him a beer. Mickle knows that we know that the other shoe is gonna drop, so there’s some humor in how suddenly happy Richard is, strutting around, smiling like he got away with something, rockin out to some White Lion in his truck.

I gotta call bullshit on that part, though. This is July 1989? He would be listening to “Batdance.” I don’t care if he has a slight mullet. Did they not have historians consulting on this thing? Come on.

Another thing that I really don’t need to mention, but will, because that’s who I am: there’s a video store in the movie, and you can tell they had to use a bookstore. Unless there really are video stores with a “YOUNG ADULT” section. I just think it’s sad that we live in times when a video store location is too hard to find. Shame on us, as a society. (I’m glad there are still enough bookstores, though. What if they had to green screen it?)

I was very happy to watch this movie only knowing that it was supposed to be good, and not what it was about, including what I have already explained here. I liked the way it unfolds, so I’m not gonna tell you everything, but if you don’t want to know the first shift in the plot you better stop reading because I’m about to tell you.

Everything seems to be tied up. And if Richard just accepted that as the truth then he could go back to his family and argue about the replacement couch but not get involved in any of this thriller shit. Live somewhat happily ever after. Unfortunately, he happens to notice a wanted poster of the guy he killed. Or at least the guy they told him he killed. But the guy in the picture is a different guy.

It’s an old picture, Price says. He looks different. But Richard knows that’s bullshit. And he can’t let it go. And this will lead to complications.

So it’s a story that opens with a violation of the sanctity of the family home, something they’re only able to get back because of the heroic efforts of the police to comfort them, guard them from the inside, keep watch on the outside, and coordinate a massive effort to stop this guy. And as soon as they can catch their breath they realize that actually the police themselves are the threat. There is no safety anymore.

There’s an awesomely tense scene of a moral decision, an agonizingly long hesitation to do the morally correct thing because it’s also an incredibly dangerous thing. Not everyone can be Babe saving the pitbull that tried to eat him. You gotta feel so bad for Richard having to make this choice.

And then, at least halfway into the movie, in struts a pair of fancy boots that turn out to be on the feet of a private eye named Jim Bob Luke, played by none other than Don Johnson (DEAD BANG). He’s as Don Johnson as you would hope, knowing his way around sleaze, willing to risk his life, apt to say things like “All right, boys, Howdy Doody time,” as they storm a place with shotguns.

Apparently Jim Bob is a little more eccentric in the book, and knows Hapkido. He returns in two of the Hap and Leonard novels. I’d like to see this iteration of him return too.

There’s a real atmosphere of doom to this thing, that eerie feeling of rural areas that you’re out in the middle of nowhere and there’s nobody around except the people who you don’t want to be around. Lots of dark roads lit only by headlights, and scary nights in isolated houses or cabins, fearing somebody might be outside the window. It has a good retro synth score by Jeff Grace (THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, MEEK’S CUTOFF). Of course that style of score is a fad now, but I’ve only seen it in horror movies, and it works really well here.

Here’s a funny thing about marketing. In the movie, Hall goes out of his way to play a guy who totally fails at living up to Texan ideals of masculinity. He goes as detailed as having a poorly grown mustache. But for this poster I guess somebody felt he had to be the head cowboy in charge:

mp_coldinjulyBI mean, it’s fine, it doesn’t sell the movie any worse or better than anything else, it’s just funny after you’ve seen it because that is not the guy he’s playing in the movie.

Richard is an interesting protagonist because he’s so clearly inadequate from the beginning, like one of the loser anti-heroes of the Fargo TV series, except a good person. He’s frustrating both in his wimpiness and his desperation to be the type of guy who will “man up.” But he’s very relatable in his vulnerability. He feels a little out of his league being a husband, a dad, a home owner, a gun user, a grownup. And we know it’s gonna be a struggle for him to stand next to these other guys who are more manly, more Texan, more able to shoot people. But he’s able to prove something to them and to himself without quite becoming some macho cynical monster guy. He doesn’t come out smelling like a bubble bath, but I’m glad it’s not the old cliche of showing us what is supposed to be an everyman and then revealing his true ugly nature because fuck you society.

It’s a good messy, kinda sad, very slightly funny crime story. I loved it. So it looks like I’ll have to check out these other Jim Mickle pictures, all movies I’d heard of but didn’t know were by the same director: MULBERRY ST (an After Dark Horror release), STAKE LAND, and WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (I’ve seen the original Mexican film, but he did the American remake). He’s also his own editor and previously worked as a grip and a storyboard artist. He storyboarded DEATH OF A DYNASTY, directed by Damon Dash!

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 26th, 2016 at 11:55 am and is filed under Crime, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

22 Responses to “Cold in July”

  1. Great film, i really enjoyed it, especially Don Johnson. I’ll be looking forward to Jim Mickle’s next film, a revenge thriller apparently starring Sylvester Stallone!

  2. This is an excellent movie. This kind of shaggy crime story is my bread-and-butter on the printed page, but it can be tough to adapt them to film. A lot of times they get done so dryly, trying to match the understatedness of most crime prose, that I end up respecting them more than I enjoy them. I watch ’em once, like ’em, and never go back. That’s not the case here. It’s a Joe Lansdale story, so nobody’s ever going to forget that, for all its psychological insight, it’s still a Texas tall tale, so there’d better be some hapkido and shootouts and shit-talking and all that good stuff. Lansdale likes to make assholes pay, so there’s always an element of catharsis in his stories. As mean and nasty as he can get, he’s not trying to rub your nose in anything.

    The book is great, too. It doesn’t play out exactly the same (in a lot of ways the changes to the script improve the story) but it’s pretty faithful in spirit. I recommend it.

  3. George Sanderson

    July 26th, 2016 at 1:22 pm

    I can’t recommend this film highly enough. I picked it up based on a review in Empire magazine and it turned out to be one of my favourite movies of 2014.
    I love the subversion of the macho stereotype through throwing Hall’s dorky character into a hard bitten noir (the sheriff’s line “It must be tough for a guy like you … A civilian, I mean” is such a great piece of character building for both characters), and the scene in which they watch the batting practice video is so chilling and takes takes the movie down yet another twisted path.
    I think it also says something about gun safety and having a gun in the house. We have high standards of gun control in New Zealand (you need a gun license to own a gun, the gun must be kept in a locked cabinet when not being used, etc) and whilst I grew up knowing how to operate a .22 semi-auto rifle it was never considered to be as a means for household protection.
    Hall’s character is not familiar or confident with his gun and it results in the death of an intruder. I think the film does a great job of making Hall seem like he did the wrong thing by using lethal force to protect his home, which I believe flies in the face of the general feeling in Texas.

  4. Great movie. The way it flip flops about is pure Lansdale (who I love – I really need to see the recent HAP AND LEONARD show). It’s one thing, then another, and all the parts are as good as each other.

    And my main man Don Johnson is just fantastic in this. Is it OK to say that I unironically love the dude? He’s just straight up pure charisma in this. And to stand out next to Shepherd and Hall? Says it all.

    By the way, I’ve never seen that particular poster and I gotta say, I DO NOT approve of the muting of Hall’s mullet. That shit just isn’t on.

  5. I also gotta give credit to this movie for being a hardboiled crime story which happens to be shot like SUSPIRIA. You can take the director out of the horror genre, but you can’t take the horror genre out of the director. It’s beautiful and surreal and nightmarish.

  6. Apart from seeing actors of the caliber of those three work together, I really didn’t find much to enjoy in this. It just took too many twists and turns for me to believe in it. I’m clearly in the minority here and maybe I’m just not seeing the forest from the trees on this one, but I’m not getting the acclaim.

  7. Jim Mickle and Nick Damici really know what they’re doing, Vern… and you’ll discover that in their other films. MULBERRY ST has a great semi-badass performance by Damici and does a hell of a good job on a tiny budget. Ditto with STAKE LAND, which is another step up in quality and has a great very-badass performance by Damici backed by a tight script and accomplished visuals. Kelly McGillis is also fantastic as Sister. WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is a solid – if slow – little movie too… just a shame the twist was already ruined for those of us that had seen the Mexican film. HAP AND LEONARD is great fun, but also captures the nasty violence that marks Lansdale’s brilliant novels. All of Mickle/Damici’s work is on tiny to very small budgets… and yet they’re producing work that outguns most mainstream stuff. You’ve got some treats ahead of you.

  8. Vern called it Southern Gothic; I called it a Texas tall tale. Either way, believability isn’t really a factor for me in this sub-genre. I like that it starts small, even kinda dull, and builds to some crazy shit. I like how far off the reservation it goes without ever entering the realm of the absurd. It’s got a good balance of the low-key and the grotesque. That kind of tone is always going to appeal to me, and when you throw in some great actors, and solid story by a great writer, and a director who’s starting to come into his own, and you get a nasty (but not too nasty), fun (but not too fun) little (but not too little) crime story. I can understand if that’s not for everybody.

  9. flyingguillotine

    July 27th, 2016 at 8:18 am

    This sits squarely in the same territory as BLUE RUIN, a drama-thriller with a deeply hesitant protagonist. Vern, I see your point about the one-sheet, though if it accurately reflected the character in the film, the audience might wonder why Dexter is cringing behind the car.

    I’ve seen STAKELAND, which I enjoyed, though overall it felt kinda disjointed, like a movie that was patched together in post, or had more story to tell than its run time allowed. I was a much bigger fan of WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, though, which I loved. It’s very much what some people call an “art house horror” film, in that it’s well-written, well-directed, well-acted, and looks beautiful, but it doesn’t shout BOO! at the audience every three minutes so it’s not going to get a 2500 screen release.

  10. Enjoyed Stakeland, but (without going into detail) found its treatment of the female characters a bit depressing. Kelly McGillis is indeed fantastic, but if only she’d been the protagonist – not just for gender-switch kicks, but because her character was by far the most interesting and unusual in the movie and promoting her to the lead would have flipped a lot of the clichés on their heads.

  11. I liked this. I usually enjoy movies (thrillers or mysteries anyway) that end up going down a different road from where they started, and I’m glad it ended up being about

    —– SPOILERS HERE ON OUT —–

    snuff films rather than, say, cocaine deals or political coverups or whatever. Everybody hates snuff film makers, right? So you’re onto a good thing if these are your villains. And it’s always nice to see an “everyman” hero rather than a self-confident wise-ass.

    There were a couple of things that puzzled me or otherwise didn’t ring true. Why do the cops end up being so potentially murderous? That’s not usual behaviour in the event of a breach of witness protection anonymity, is it? Did I miss something? Are they involved in the video business somehow, or is it just payback for whatever the dad did to the special forces guy in the house? I also didn’t buy how gung-ho Richard becomes once they decide to go after the son. I mean this guy has a wife and kid and was a nervous wreck just a few days before after accidentally shooting a man; I don’t know if I buy his being able to “man up” quite so readily and effectively.

    One last quibble is about something I’ve seen before in films (though I can’t remember any of them now). It’s the way characters making dodgy home movies often seem to linger in front of the camera, staring in close-up at the lens, doing … what? Clearing smudges off the glass, checking their reflections? I mean, it’s nice that we get a good look at their faces at a crucial moment, but it doesn’t seem a very natural thing to do.

    Oh by the way, Anne – if you’re the Anne I’m thinking of – I liked your Mishima intro. I don’t know why, but it stayed in my memory. And if you’re not the Anne I’m thinking of then that probably sounds like a weird comment and you should ignore it.

  12. Since so many people here have seen it I want to bring up something great I left out of the review because it’s such a big SPOILER. For the first half hour of the movie, it seems to be about this scary father terrorizing a guy for killing his son. Who would ever guess that the son would still be a live and in the end it would be about the father and the guy teaming up to actually kill him?

  13. i watched this last night, and it’s just extremely well paced. Just as you are settling in on a direction, the film shifts on you. But it never seems unnatural either. I also love what the director does with lighting. I’ll have to hunt down some of his other movies.

  14. I really enjoyed this as well. My only issue is the stylized lighting during the SPOILER Rolling Thunder-like showdown. Would have preferred the carnage ugly and plain and uncomfortably visible. Great stuff though, that fucking cheesy theme on *that video* will likely haunt me for years

  15. COLD IN JULY reminded me of many of the best Korean thrillers to come out over the past 20 years, and I think one of the big reasons is because it doesn’t follow the typical Hollywood three-act structure. FilmCritic Hulk, everyone’s favorite mathematician of a movie scholar, makes an excellent argument for why more films should adopt a five-act structure. That way they escape the usual great set-up, bloated middle, and rushed ending mishap that belabors so many productions. COLD IN JULY constantly fucks with your expectations, making for a thrilling viewing. As others have said, it takes you to some very different scenes than you’d ever expect from the trailer; nothing is what it seems, and we the audience are better off for it. I recommend it to everyone I can.

  16. caruso_stalker217

    October 26th, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    I finally got around to watching this legitimately great film. I loved it. The story takes several turns I wasn’t expecting, in a good way. There are great performances across the board. After STAKELAND and LATE PHASES I’ve been wanting to see Nick Damici in a film that actually rises to his level. This does the trick.

    I thought Michael C. Hall was great in this. I don’t think I’ve actually seen him in anything before. His low-key mullet was good too. If this film had been made twenty years ago I think Bill Paxton would have played this character. And Lance Henriksen would have been in there somewhere.

    This is a satisfying and well made picture. And I thought it was funny watching the biggest piece of shit in the film on screen and thinking “That guy really looks like Kurt Russell” only to find out during the end credits that it was his son.

    I wrote this mini-review while taking a shit.

  17. RIP Sam Shepard. Hell of an actor and one hell of a playwright.

  18. Oh shit, no. Love that guy.

  19. I’ll always think PARIS, TEXAS and THE RIGHT STUFF for him.

  20. The movie BLACKTHORN, the dialog he wrote for Harry Dean Stanton’s face-off with Nastassja Kinski at the end and the lyrics for Bob Dylan’s BROWNSVILLE GIRL are Sam Shepard for me.

  21. This is perfect:

    Sam Shepard reads from Motel Chronicles

    Sam Shepard reads from Motel Chronicles at the 2007 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York City.

    Shepard reading my favourite story from Motel Chronicles – the one where he gets fired for being blown away by Nina Simone’s singing.

  22. “You get the picture, framer”

    I died, rewinded, died again, rewinded, died again

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