COLD 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.”
He 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:
I 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!