Sam Shepard (Russell), Michael C. Hall (Richard Dane), and Don Johnson (Jim Bob) in Jim Mickle’s COLD IN JULY. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
“Cold in July,” a film directed by Jim Mickle and written by Mickle and Nick Damici is the little engine that ultimately couldn’t. With a top notch cast led by Michael C. Hall and Sam Shepard, “Cold in July” aims for a bullet through the heart and instead ends up shooting itself in the foot.
Richard Dane (Hall) is a timid everyman, happily married with a young child and the owner of a frame shop in his small Texas town. His life is turned upside down the night he hears an intruder. Carefully removing his six shooter from a box in the closet, he descends the stairs and confronts the thief, fatally shooting him. The police arrive, survey the scene and reassure Dane and his wife that this was a self-defense shooting. They inform him that the perp was well known to them with a long string of arrests. The thief’s father, a career criminal, was recently released from the state pen, so the acorn didn’t fall far from the tree.
Coming face-to-face with Russell, the father (Shepard), at the gravesite, Richard must now confront a new type of fear as Russell has vowed retribution. And Russell is a master, gaining entrance to the Dane house and wreaking havoc with their nerves. Finally recognizing the real threat posed by Russell, the police vow to arrest him.
Wanting further information, Richard goes to the police station and it is there that he sees a wanted poster for the man the police say he shot. He discovers what can only be a cover-up by the police involving both the father and son. But Russell resurfaces and Richard confronts him with the news that it wasn’t his son, Freddy, who died.
Russell calls in a favor from an old friend Jim Bob, a private detective from Houston, and together they all discover that Freddy is in a witness protection program being hidden from the Dixie Mafia. But there’s more. Freddy is no mere innocent. His video rental store is a front for unimaginable murderous criminal behavior that is being ignored by the Feds while he is in custody. Freddy must be stopped.
The plot is a good one and through almost half of the movie Mickle is able to sustain a razor-edged tension. Hall’s initial portrayal of Dane as an ordinary man fighting to understand the situation around him produces a knot in your stomach that clearly states – “this isn’t going to end well for him.” He’s overmatched by everyone and under water.
Sam Shepard is particularly good as that older man with his perverted sense of Western eye-for-an-eye justice and has a frightening presence that makes Hall’s Dane all the more believable. It is, however, Don Johnson as Jim Bob who steals the show. Driving up in a red Cadillac El Dorado with bull horns on the grill, Johnson’s mere presence ramps up the action but it also changes the tone.
Unfortunately it is the way that Mickle and Damici ramp up the action that becomes the problem. Returning home from a scout with Russell and Jim Bob, Richard Dane, our everyman, makes limited eye contact as he slouches in his wrinkled button down and khakis. Leaving home anew to rejoin Russell and Jim Bob on their hunt, Richard is now upright, meeting every glance and outfitted in dark shirt and leather vest, a transformation handled less subtly than Clark Kent changing clothes in a telephone booth.
The knot in the stomach is gone and there can be little doubt how things will ultimately turn out regardless of how outnumbered our anti-heroes are.
Mickle and Damici threw character development under the bus and at that point they threw the movie in with it. Such a pity because the first half of the film showed such promise and the second half became almost laughable in its heroics like something out of “The Dirty Dozen” or “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” if they had outgunned the federales.
Ultimately, this is about wasting the good will of an audience by turning a psychological thriller into a graphic novel cartoon. The production values are quite good and the acting was, for the most part, excellent. Hall is particularly good at playing uncomfortable and Shepard, in his later years, is commandingly threatening. But it bears repeating that Don Johnson with his cowboy hat and Texas swagger is a pure pleasure who still knows how to light up a screen.
Opening Friday May 23 at the Sundance Sunset. Also available on VOD.