Cold in July (which is getting its UK release in June – pfft! Talk about lame!) is the new movie from Jim Mickle, a young American filmmaker fast-carving himself a reputation as not just promising but already something very much like the finished article.
Take, for example, his English-language remake of Mexican cannibal flick We Are What We Are, which ripped up the rulebook stating all such retreads must be pointless piles of poop, before using the shredded pages as a makeshift battering ram with which to clobber the Great God Cliché to a long-deserved death. Take that, cine-ruining shyster!
One of the successes of that earlier Mickle movie was its brooding vision of America’s often dark heartlands, drawn from the history and culture of its setting, rather than taking the usual cop-out horror route of rolling out the giggling hick killers. And Cold in July treads similarly bleak territory in places, most notably through a gruesome plot thread involving a snuff video ring.
But it also offers moments of light and levity too, as Texan everyman Richard Dane (played superbly by Michael C. Hall) is pushed far from the comfort zone of his cosy home life; at first reluctantly, but then with growing self-certainty.
As with We Are What We Are before it, Cold in July finds Mickle offering his take on existing material: in this case, a Joe R. Lansdale novel from 1989, which is the year the movie is set, thus garlanding Hall with a ferocious mullet and a semi-Hitler ‘tache.
Working with his regular writing partner, Nick Damici (who also takes on the supporting role of a suave but slightly shady sheriff), Mickle toiled for several years in his efforts to get a big screen version of Lansdale’s book off the ground. As he did so, potential finance was periodically dangled in his direction, albeit with the conditional involvement of a phoning-it-in action dummy like Travolta, Cage or Wahlberg.
Feeling the project was getting away from the very things he loved about the novel in the first place, Mickle’s enthusiasm was rekindled when his partner and producer Linda Moran punched up a fresh draft with Damici. Coming off eight seasons of Dexter, Hall duly committed, allowing the rest of the cast and finance to fall into place.
Which is certainly something to be glad for, as Cold in July is a fine film. Whether it’s quite as fine a film as many of the pre-release notices have suggested is another matter; the modern hunger of many critics for new directorial deities to bow and scrape to (provided those deities are white, male and relatively youthful) shows no sign of abating. Not while there’s still Ben Wheatley-Nicolas Winding Refn slash fiction to write anyway.
What Mickle’s movie is certainly able to boast is a terrific opening that drops the audience, along with its main character, straight into the action. Asleep at home, late at night, Richard is awoken by what sounds like an intruder. He goes to investigate and – this being Texas – he does so armed with a revolver. Disturbing the prowler, the gun goes off, leaving the walls of Richard’s family home redecorated in an interesting new colour called ‘hint of brain’ (RIP Rik).
The upstanding homeowner is swiftly absolved of any blame, but it transpires the would-be thief was one Freddy Russell, son of badass career crook Ben Russell (Sam Shepard, looking as old and weathered as the rocks of Monument Valley). Richard is left living on his nerves as the wrinkly old con menaces him, his wife and their son – only for a shock revelation to completely change the game and send the story veering off in an entirely new direction.
From that electric opening chapter, the pace noticeably slows, with several plot threads being left to dangle. One of the reasons Mickle gave for the difficulty in raising finance was the novel sits between genres, and his movie does likewise. It starts off as a bogeyman thriller, then turns into something like a buddy detective TV pilot, before becoming a stylised ’80s shoot-em-up (complete with the obligatory John Carpenter-referencing synths, courtesy of House of the Devil’s Jeff Grace).
Key to these sometimes uneasy shifts is Don Johnson, who turns up midway through the movie as the loquacious Jim Bob. From the very first frame he struts into, cowboy boots loudly clacking, it feels as if the filmmakers are having a blast with the character, and Johnson likewise.
However, with Jim Bob suddenly interrupting the interesting dynamic developing between Richard and Ben, to spout one-liners and exposition in equal measure, the result is not a million miles away from No Country for Old Men being gatecrashed by a deep south David Dickinson.
Cold in July is released in the UK on 27th June