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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.23.14] thriller

Adapted from the novel by Joe R. Lansdale and directed by Jim Mickle (Stake Land, We Are What We Are), Cold In July is an unconventional and highly entertaining thriller. Starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson, it presents itself as a brooding Southern noir, but shifts gears on us part way through and develops into a black comedy, ultimately becoming a story more about friendship than revenge. This superb film stands as the highlight of the EIFF so far this year, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Hall plays Richard Dane, a small-town family man who runs his own picture framing business. One night he is woken by a burglar, and in attempting to defend his wife and young son he accidentally shoots and kills the intruder. Although badly shaken, Richard is congratulated by the town's sheriff (Nick Damici) as it appears he's inadvertently aided the police in dispatching a wanted felon. When the dead man's father, Russel (Shepard), starts malevolently stalking Richard and his family, the two men becomes embroiled in a tense game of cat-and-mouse, only to make a curious discovery which leads them to seek the services of the flamboyant private detective, Jim Bob (Johnson). From here they form an unlikely trio and start to investigate a mystery.

Set in Texas in 1989, the film is bound to draw comparisons to the Coen's similarly staged period thriller No Country For Old Men, and in terms of plot it's superficially comparable to David Cronenberg's A History Of Violence. That being said, the film stands on its own as an altogether different kind of animal. Although initially presented as a revenge thriller about an everyman standing up for justice and family (gag) it's remarkably free of the pretentious speeches and butch machismo these kinds of genre pieces often contain ("Sometimes a good man needs to do baaad things..." etc). This is mainly down to Hall's exceptional performance as Richard; as the central character he keeps us grounded in reality. While wrestling with his desire to protect his family, he projects a genuine sense of confusion and angst over the situation which rings true, and the film is stronger for this. The trailer gives the impression that Richard pulls a Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs and turns into some kind of superman when the occasion calls for it, but his sensitivity to events remains consistent. Even as he becomes stronger and discovers that he has the ability to surprise himself, Hall never lets us lose sight of the man Richard actually is.

No review would be complete without mentioning how totally awesome Don Johnson is in this film. Blazing into the plot in a red convertible, his entrance heralds a change in tone which lightens the atmosphere and adds a lot of fun to proceedings. Johnson cheerfully sends up his screen persona, grabs the best lines and quickly becomes the heart and soul of the film. Sam Shepard, meanwhile, underplays his role beautifully. A hard-bitten, career criminal coming to terms with old age and obsolescence, his occasional dialogue and subtle mannerisms paint him as a man who's lost everything - betrayed by life, he seems to be seeking a way to leave it behind with dignity. His no-nonsense attitude also provides moments of unexpected humour, especially when contrasted with Hall's wide-eyed innocence and Johnson's roguish charm. Together the three characters form a very strange little gang, and it's remarkable to see how skillfully the actors play off one another as they travel haphazardly through the narrative.

In terms of direction Mickle's choices are pretty difficult to fault. He keeps things moving at a good pace, provides inventive camera work during scenes of action and suspense, but essentially keeps things unfussy, allowing the story and the characters to speak for themselves. Composer Jeff Grace provides an effective underlying, minimal score for moments of tension that's agreeably reminiscent of early John Carpenter, and chooses a fun mixture of '80s rock and synthpop (I'm told it's 'Dreamwave' synth) for scenes which call for something lighter.

The film is roughly 110 minutes long, but it moves fast thanks to an inventive and continually shifting narrative. Written by Mickle and Nick Damici, the script is engaging and well-considered, and towards the end you notice how flawlessly the story has drawn you in and gotten you involved. During several moments I was struck by how rare it is to see an all around quality film such as this. Nothing about it stands out as a misstep, as Mickle and his cast just seem to sail over every hurdle on their way to providing a completely enjoyable and intelligent piece of grown-up entertainment - and that is perhaps the best way to describe Cold In July.

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SplitBreast (8 years ago) Reply

Its surprising how few Joe Lansdale adaptations there are. This, Bubba Ho-Tep, and Incident On And Off A mountain Road are about it.

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