Director Jim Mickle’s fourth feature film, Cold in July, is an adaptation of a novel by Joe R. Landsale, set in the particular, simpler landscape of 1989 East Texas. It’s also Mickle’s most accomplished and promising work to date, as it shows the director moving away from the genre hybrids he’s come to be known for, specifically the vampire apocalypse comedy Stakeland (2010) and his remake of Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are (2013). While those films struggled with consistency and tone, often faltering irreparably under the weight of their derivative natures, Mickle’s latest is a mixture of scaled back flourishes and makes for a cold, mean, vicious neo-noir. The film certainly deserved more attention after critical praise following the Sundance Film Festival premiere, followed by an invite to play at Cannes and then a muted theatrical release in the US. But its eventual destiny as a notable title will most likely be as a recuperation, a re-discovered lost gem of a film.
Awakening her husband Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) one night, Ann (Vinessa Shaw) is convinced she hears an intruder. And, indeed, there is one, a man that Richard promptly shoots and kills. Unfortunately, as local law enforcement Ray Price (Nick Damici, who happens to be frequent co-writer of Mickle’s films) confirms, the perpetrator has a father, Ben Russel (Sam Shepard), who was recently paroled and will most likely seek vengeance. This he certainly does, and is promptly arrested. But then Richard discovers something strange—stumbling upon the dead man’s mug shot, he realized he didn’t kill the man the police say he killed. Snooping around, he saves Russel from a staged death at the hands of the police and the two men try to figure out what to do. They’re aided by a P.I. who sails in from Houston, the gregarious Jim Bob (Don Johnson), and together they piece together what’s going on with Ben’s son, Freddy (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt).
Cold in July plays like Mickle’s homage to 80’s era John Carpenter, a vintage auteur whose stylized flourishes seem to be inspiring genre filmmakers all over, notably in another 2014 genre riff, The Guest. Of course, this seems most apparent in Jeff Grace’s heavy synth score, which melts almost hallucinogenically into Ryan Samul’s vibrant cinematography, which features a conglomeration of striking hues. Its final show down is a mixture of electric dark blues, grotesque greens, sickly amber, and radiant oranges that pop up in slivers of doorways. A grisly bullet to a bad guy’s head splatters blood over a ceiling light, bathing us all in crimson.
If at first Grace’s score seems unfitting for the tale’s initial simplicity, it finds its place as July dips into its seedy, unseemly world of snuff films and corruption of law enforcement, which never happens with a similar synth score used in this year’s STD horror film, It Follows, a film also dripping with vintage technique.
For those used to the ornery side of Michael C. Hall, his rather meek and mild turn as the mulleted family man, Richard Dane, is even more striking, a man whose actions turn from self-defense to probable thrill seeking, an escape from his humdrum and rather stale existence with peppery wife, Vinessa Shaw, looking the period but with little to do. It’s a nice change of pace foe Sam Shepard, a meaty, vicious role for the grizzled performer, a far cry from limited supporting roles in fare like Mud or the highly artificial melodrama of August: Osage County. But the real treat here is Don Johnson, making good on that supporting turn in Tarantino’s Django Unchained. A cowboy PI zooming around in his little vintage red car with a license plate reading Red Btch, Johnson is the arresting glue that ties Cold in July up into a winning package.
IFC has taken care with its Blu-ray package of Cold in July, presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.40:1, attempting to preserve the original theatrical aspect ratio. And, indeed, the film looks equally as vibrant as it does on the big screen. There are several extra features, though none are of extremely great interest.
Deleted Scenes (with optional commentary):
There are about sixteen minutes worth of deleted scenes strung together, some continuations of scenes already in the film. It seems a bit of Shaw’s scenes ended up here, notably those depicting thwarted or extended intimacy with Hall’s character.
Early Previsualization Tests:
Several minutes worth of animated previsualization tests are included.
Q&A with Lonsdale and Cast at Cocteau Theater:
A complete Q&A after a screening of the film is presented here, though it isn’t without its fair share of addlepated questions.
Undoubtedly simple, Cold in July may not be for all tastes, but it is one of the best examples of vintage styling to come about in some time, and on nearly every possible front. And it announces Mickle as a promising new American director of various talents.