It’s every homeowner’s nightmare: A noise in the middle of the night; an intruder in your house. You load your gun but you don’t want to use it. Then, with a shaking hand, you face the dark shadow in your living room, and you fire.
It’s East Texas, 1989, and nice guy husband and father, Richard Dane (Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, nicely playing against type) has just killed the man who broke into his house. “Sometimes the good guy wins,” says the cop, letting Dane know he’s in the clear, but it’s not long before the local hero begins to suspect that maybe not everything the cops have told him about the man he killed is altogether true. And that’s when the trouble starts.
Cold in July from director Jim Mickle is that rare animal; a small, independent film that comes out of nowhere and takes hold within the first few minutes. For the remainder of its dark, slow burning, hundred minute running time, the film is nothing less than riveting.
Based on a novella by Joe R. Lansdale, Cold in July is the kind of black hearted modern western where if you explained too much you’re in danger of spoiling the fun of discovery for others. Director Mickle is best known for horror and you can see those dark influences throughout. True to its style, there are stormy nights, late night grave diggings, bodies with missing fingers so that they can’t be identified, not to mention gas-guzzling convertibles with fuzzy dice hanging from the mirror, all set to an atmospheric, pulsating, synthesized soundtrack by Jeff Grace, the kind that echoes the style of an early John Carpenter movie.
Sam Shepard plays Ben Russell, the vengeful father to the man caught robbing Dane’s home. Knowing that his son was killed, Russell has no time for explanations or anything else resembling reason. All he knows was that some guy in a small town killed his son, and he wants revenge. Russell is a man of few words, but when he speaks, everything he says, no matter how seemingly innocuous, sounds like a threat. “That’s a nice picture of your family in the paper,” Russell tells a guarded Dane.
Don Johnson, who gets increasingly better at this sort of thing, is Jim Bob, a lawman with his own agenda. He’s the one with the big hat, the southern drawl and the fuzzy dice in his car hanging just above his dashboard. He may carry a badge but he doesn’t exactly play by the rules.
Occasionally, the film feels in danger of showing too much. There are horrific things constantly happening – images revealed on a VHS video tape are particularly harrowing – but the strength of Cold in July is its restraint. The film does a terrific job of pulling away just at the moment when you begin to flinch. Things implied rather than seen are almost always effective, and Cold in July, with its narrative surprises and its keen sense of mystery and menace, knows exactly when to pull away.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 109 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)