Have you ever awakened to a sound in the middle of the night? A sound you know is real and out of place? In the moments which follow what do you choose as your course of action; to cower and pray that whatever menace lurks outside your room abates, or do you go out to confront it in the dark? If you are Richard Dane, ordinary, 1980s-mullett wearing Texas guy, you get your rarely if ever used handgun, load it with trembling hands and head towards the sound, gun aimed high. Then, panic and a slip of the finger you fire, altering more than just your two lives in a flash. COLD IN JULY sets its audience up with a fairly standard scenario where we feel confident we know the story – remorse, shame, marital and internal conflict and ensuing paranoia from such a traumatic event. Where we end up 109 minutes later however is an altogether different world.
‘We didn’t think you had it in you‘ is said to upstanding citizen Richard Dane on more than one occasion following his fatal shot to his intruder, a wanted felon. Dane is played by Michael C. Hall who here bears zero resemblance to his calculating, cold hearted serial killer DEXTER. He is a fumbling, fearful, weakling afraid at every turn and facing the relentless petty displeasure of his wife. The plot turns on Dane shifting him from the hunter into the hunted by a convincing and frightening ex-con named Russel. Dane grimaces and winces through police efforts to protect him when he realizes that he is being stalked by a force more experienced and cunning than he realized. His opponent Russel is portrayed by a suddenly old but potently menacing Sam Shepard. As the story progresses in slithers a testosterone fueled, smooth, polished and seductive Don Johnson. Not straying far from his typical role he fits well here, assumes control with ease and adds a needed and balanced third leg to the films power trio with Hall and Shepard.
COLD IN JULY keeps shifting the ground underneath its characters in ways we never expect. What seems like a straightforward cat and mouse game spirals out of control. We sense that something is amiss, something bigger, something lurking beneath, but exactly what we can never get a grip on until its in our face. I felt at times manipulated, but that’s the whole point – we believe we know what to expect in life with a few curve balls thrown our way. Our little existences filled with floral sofas and pictures of our children are just props to distract us from the reality that at any moment bad things can happen to us – because of us – over which we have no control. We suffocate ourselves trying to stay ‘safe’ until we have to make a choice. We have control only over the choices we make and COLD IN JULY forces us to bear witness to some huge, hairy and startling moral and ethical choices which obliterate our tidy ideas of who is good, bad, predatory, victimized, honest and more. Like a jigsaw puzzle which has been cast to the ground, the same pieces are there but the picture is unrecognizable. I am typically drawn to stories about the relativity of right versus wrong, the ambiguity and fluidity of how our iron clad concepts change in a flash because of context, and COLD IN JULY does an excellent job of demonstrating that flux. The film also gives Richard Dane a hefty dose of growing up. As he recalls the ‘Richard’ who shot the intruder he knows that man no longer lives in him, and while he may bear physical and mental scars from the ugliness he has witnessed and participated in, he is happy to be rid of the earlier version of himself. He is a wholly changed man into whom a hardness has taken root.
COLD IN JULY is a visually beautiful film. It is soaked with saturated color like a stained glass window, filled with blackness, light and streaming hues it is a pleasure just to watch. Red coffee cups gleam like rubies, upholstery glows and envelops Richard as he travels farther and farther from his original life. The aesthetic stands in stark contrast to the narrative which is brutal and monstrous. Camera angles keep you ever so slightly off balance and overall the film is skillfully shot by cinematographer Ryan Samul who collaborated previously with writer/director Jim Mickle on WE ARE WHAT WE ARE and STAND LAKE. While I felt that WE ARE WHAT WE ARE had great a great premise and potentially thrilling drama, it plodded along and never reached down and remembered it had a set of balls, so to speak. COLD IN JULY in contrast brings forth pointed and effective tension all the way to the end, and its characters are convincing and accessible. Much like BLUE RUIN, another excellent film of this genre, COLD IN JULY brings us a regular guy recreating himself through extraordinary events, and daring its audience to stay with him as far as we can to the limits of our beliefs, but not beyond. That is a delicate balance and requires great skill on all levels; writing, directing and acting. Like almost all movies these days it could lose 10 minutes or so and be just as, if not more effective, but even so it doesn’t lose you. There are small slices of humor that feel natural and in no way undermine or lessen the gravity of the narrative. The film is compellingly cast, glorious to watch and, like turning down an unknown dirt road, takes you on an unexpected, bumpy, and potentially dangerous journey.
Director: Jim Mickle
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw, Wyatt Russell,
Running time: 109 minutes
Movie Review Cold In July