Cold In July (2014)

Review first published by FilmLand Empire

The opening image of Cold In July shows a barren wilderness, until the camera pulls back revealing both a picture frame, and the domestic mantelpiece above which this landscape painting hangs. It is late at night in East Texas, 1989 – and jittery Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall), still barefoot and in his pyjamas, accidentally shoots dead a young burglar, splattering his brains all over the painting.

“I hear you got you one last night,” says the local mailman to Richard the following morning. “I couldn’t believe it was you, at first – I didn’t think you had it in you.” Richard cannot quite believe it himself. A family man devoted to his wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) and young son Jordan (Brogan Hall), this ‘upright citizen’ serves the community with his picture framing business – which makes him quick to spot another kind of frame being mounted by the police investigating the burglar’s death.

Smelling conspiracy, Richard joins unlikely forces with Ben Russel (Sam Shepard), a taciturn war veteran and ex con old enough to be Richard’s father, and Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson), a stetson-sporting detective cum pigfarmer – and sets out on a long, twisted road to self discovery.

Adapted from Joe Lansdale’s 1989 novel by director Jim Mickle (Stakeland, We Are What We Are) and Nick Damici (who also appears as the town sheriff), Cold In July goes way way back – back to the year in which it is set and was written, but also back further to America’s heritage of the wild west when men were men and a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, with justice a mere shadow. For all the noirish rolls and feints that will leave the viewer unsure from one moment to the next where the narrative is headed, this is essentially an Eighties oater – and so, as the film channels Howard Hawks by way of John Carpenter, a doubly nostalgic (and doubly distanced) rite of masculine passage is played out on screen, like the corpse of a twentieth-century dinosaur that has been covertly disinterred so that its identity can be rechecked post mortem.

Mickle evokes the Eighties in ways that are, for the most part, refreshingly free of irony. Much of the period window dressing is understated – the price of petrol, the prominence of VHS, some old computers in the background, even Richard’s shadow of a mullet – with only the comic business of Joe Bob’s ‘car phone’ proving as old, clunky and ineffective as the ‘new-fangled’ gizmo itself. Jeff Grace’s score is a pitch-perfect, mood-inducing wash of synth lines and pulses reminiscent of Carpenter and Tangerine Dream.

The key reference point here is a run of semi-contemporary southern noirs (Blood Simple, The Hot Spot) as well as other, odder Eighties titles like David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (not to mention Cronenberg’s later A History of Violence). Meanwhile era icons Johnson (who headlined The Hot Spot) and Shepard and haunt the film with their characters’ already outmoded set of values, even as Wyatt (son of Kurt) Russell embodies a new generation with a new brand of waywardness.

In the end, with its themes of inherited vice and amateur avengers, Cold In July especially recalls last year’s Blue Ruin, whose director, Jeremy Saulnier, is duly acknowledged in the closing credits. There is an idea here of a nation that cannot ever quite bury its violent historical legacy, passed down from father to son – and while the final scenes may return us to a cosy domestic sphere and a family scene, we are aware that wildness still forms a part of that picture.

Anton Bitel