Writer-director Jim Mickle segues effortlessly from one genre to another with “Cold in July,” switching from the horror of “Stake Land” and “We Are What We Are” to pulp period noir with real style.
Based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale that Mickle adapted along with his partner Nick Damici, “Cold” starts out like a cousin to “Cape Fear.” In 1989 East Texas, owlish picture framer Richard Dane shoots an intruder who’s broken into his house. The cops, led by Ray Price (Damici), inform him that the man was Freddy Russell, a low-life ne’er do well that nobody will miss, except perhaps his daddy Ben (Sam Shepard), who’s just getting out of Huntsville himself.
And Ben does show up at Freddy’s funeral, oozing menace as few can as well as Shepard; he’s another Max Cady, whether you think of Mitchum or De Niro, threatening Dane’s wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) and young son Jordan (Brogan Hall). He even manages to break into Richard’s home despite police surveillance. Fortunately, the cops catch him, much to Dane’s relief.
That changes to concern, however, when Richard sees an old wanted poster for Freddy and becomes convinced, despite Price’s assurances to the contrary, that Russell wasn’t the man he shot. His suspicion that something’s amiss is confirmed when he sees the police drag Ben from his jail cell and leave him unconscious on a railway track just as a freighter is approaching. Naturally he rescues the old man, and before long the two have grudgingly joined forces to find out the truth about Freddy. And it isn’t long before they’re joined by an old chum of Ben’s, Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson), a PI who’s also a pig farmer and drives around in a flashy red convertible, wearing a big belt buckle and a Stetson.
From this point “Cold in July” morphs into a clever vigilante number with the three amigos coming across like a late twentieth-century version of the magnificent seven as they take aim on a crime syndicate known as the Dixie Mafia and what appears to be a spinoff operation specializing in an especially repulsive form of video pornography. The twists in this latter section of the picture are clever, and the script makes the most of them. But Mickle also gives his three stars the opportunity to engage in some lovely ensemble work as Richard, Ben and Jim Bob interact, with Richard learning the ropes from the older men, Ben gruffly demanding that they move forward, and Jim Bob using his wiles to push the investigation along.
They’re all brought to vivid life by the actors, who work beautifully together. Johnson has the showiest role, and he runs with it, stealing scene after scene. But Shepard’s sternness balances his abandon with an equal dose of gravitas. And Hall is excellent as the man in the middle, learning from both as they proceed to a bloody showdown with a bunch of bad-guys that would have made Sam Peckinpah proud, particularly as it also has a strong familial subtext. The film’s narrative arc is really centered on Dale’s development as a man in the social setting of the time—his transformation from a milquetoast to a guy who can handle himself in a pinch—and Hall manages to capture that change effectively. Damici makes a properly slippery cop and Wyatt Russell a particularly oily villain, but Shaw is pretty much wasted as Ann. This is a macho show down the line.
The crew do their jobs expertly as well, with production designer Russell Barnes and costume designer Elisabeth Vastola recreating the look and feel of eighties Texas to a T and cinematographer Ryan Samul capturing all the seediness in widescreen images that have a certain seediness themselves. The propulsive score by Jeff Grace adds to the film’s forward motion as well.
“Cold in July” is the modern equivalent of the B movies that studios used to make, and it reminds us of how good many of them were.