Employing Hall to labor beneath a starter mullet that enhances his already prominent brow, the producers of Cold in July would seem to have overshot East Texas of the late-1980's and placed him somewhere up (or down) The March of Progress. He never quite finds the character of the framing store manager, rendered vaguely to begin with by writers Mickle and Nick Damici. As with Emile Hirsch in another story of Texas mayhem, Killer Joe (2011), Hall is a non-entity with a half-hearted drawl at the center of the film. This is unexpected and disappointing, given the interesting work the actor has been doing on Six Feet Under and Dexter in the past decade plus. This failure occurs despite the Mr. Hall's obvious efforts to the contrary.
It is to the benefit of Cold in July that its plot drifts a bit away from Richard Dane to cast some of its focus on both Ben Russell (Sam Shepard) and his private eye friend, Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson). The story is not entirely what it appears to be on first or second impression. The script of Mickle and Damici, based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale, does manage to surprise with its several changes in course. Unfortunately, the shifting tone of the story is managed with less skill.
Ben Russell is the father of the man Richard Dane shoots in his living room, or so both men are led to believe by local sheriff Ray Price (Damici). Once sprung from prison in Alabama, the elder Russell heads straight for East Texas to terrorize, if not exact revenge on Dane. Price and his deputies are no match for the determined old coot. If you've seen a trailer for Cold in July, you are led to believe that this is where most of the action and tension will be expended, this possible eye for another son's eye. Not so.
Russell does no harm to Dane's boy, despite the opportunity to do so. Of course, his appearance in the child's darkened room is announced by an illuminating flash of lightening. Verily, a dark and stormy night that the family survives intact. They are thrilled to hear that Russell is soon thereafter apprehended in Mexico. The only problem, aside from removing all the mud and blood from the nocturnal misadventures in his home, is that Richard Dane sees a mug shot photo of Russell, Jr. on a wall at the police station. The face does not match the man whose brains he spattered against is living room wall and bric-a-brac. Sheriff Price assures him - a bit too stridently - that they got the right man. Unable to shake his doubts, Dane happens upon Price and his men hauling Russell Sr. into an alley outside the jail, beating him and then driving off into the night. The confused man follows and ultimately pulls Russell of the train tracks where he had been left him to die, set up to look like he passed out drunk. Dane first holds Russell hostage at his late-father's cabin, but the two men eventually team up to find out what's going on, where the younger Russell might be. Enter Jim Bob Luke.
Keeping less than a low profile in a red Cadillac with a license plate that reads "RedBtch," Luke is a part-time pig farmer, part-time private eye, full-time cowboy of the post modern sort. Like Sam Shephard, Don Johnson manages Cold in July's convulsions of plot and tone much more gracefully than does the film's script.
As his work here and as Kenny Power's father on HBO's East Bound and Down would seem to suggest, Johnson is settling nicely into grey-haired character work. Still, the role of Jim Bob Luke allows the peacock in Johnson to strut a good bit. It also reminds us the actor's presence, that smartass charisma, has the the potential to age like good bourbon. As Luke, Russell and Dane speed along a highway by night, there would seem to be a homage to the show that made Johnson famous, the synthesized score Cold in July pulsating in a manner reminiscent of Jan Hammer's famous Miami Vice theme.
With it's bloodletting and that synthesizer-heavy score, Cold in July offers a nod to the work of John Carpenter. Carpenter both directed and provided the music for the likes of Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), even Vampires, something of a 1998 throwback to the director's earlier work.
Cold in July succeeds well enough in terms of look and sound. The choice of locations and Annie Simeone's art direction evoke a slightly shabby East Texas of the late 1980's, a backwater of both fashion (Dane managing in plaid short sleeve shirt and knit tie) and decoration. The Dane's might aspire to a kind of suburban gentility, but something more squalid exists on the other side of a pretty fine line, just as violence lurks at the periphery of their ordered lives. As husband and wife attempt to remove the blood and grey matter from their living room after the shooting, the wall of the prefab house gives slightly with the scrubbing.
Director Jim Mickle has shown a good eye through his first four features. It could be argued that he's more craftsman than artist, but the work he's done in most every aspect of film production shows in the assured execution of his films. With Cold in July, Mickle dwells nicely on lights in the darkness, the glow of a red taillight in the night. Again, nothing supremely original, but well rendered.
The problem with Cold in July, as so often is the case, is one of story. At a time when horror films are most often succeeding when steeped in irony or humor (Sean of the Dead, Zombieland; the recent vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive succeeded mainly by being uniquely Jarmuschian), Mickle and Damici as writers have demonstrated a real seriousness of purpose in their treatment of these genre films. Their vampire apocalypse in Stakeland (2010), worked as well in its elements allegory as with outbreaks of violence and gore. Mainly it was a success in its consistent, mournful tone, which Mickle elicited from his actors and mirrored with restraint in the look of the rural and post-apocalyptic America of the film. The writing team's zombie (ish) story, We Are What We Are (2013), is slow going for much of its 100 minutes. But even there, Mickle and Damici show a real respect for their subject matter, a restraint and integrity of story and character unusual in a genre dominated by cheap thrills which jolt people in their theater seats for a few seconds, only to be quickly forgotten.
The problem here may well be one of source material. Writer Joe R. Lansdale has jumped around quite successfully in genre fiction, sometimes playing havoc with the various traditions of the western, science fiction, horror, etc. (the film Bubba Ho-Tep was based on his novella). There is a point at which Cold in July attempts a last shift into something quite powerful, almost tragic. The story simply does not have the stature to see it through.
Ben Russell not only finds out where is son living, but what he's been up to. It's not good. So heinous are the younger Russell's actions, that his father compares him to a dog gone rabid that must either be chained or put down. Ben Russell, hardly a man of half measures, decides it must be the latter.
With father setting off to kill his own son, the story embarks for the realm of tragedy. Unfortunately, in Lansdale we do not have a Texas Euripides. Nor can Mickle and Damici adequately elevate the material to the high ground (by way of the lowest deeds) to which the story aspires. There had already been evidence of laziness in the story before the final confrontation. The sardonic bloodhound Luke had found out that young Russell was in the Witness Protection Program, hiding from the "Dixie Mafia." Now, I'm no organized crime expert, but the Dixie Mafia? Really? And when the unlikely trio discover that Ben Russell's boy has been taking lives in a particularly abhorrent (let's just say it was not self defense) manner, Luke says the wayward young man is beyond the redress of criminal justice because he's under government protection. Again, really?
If Mickle and Damici want to transcend their genre roots, they might want to seek out source material with a little more literary weight. Perhaps someone contemporary like Daniel Woodrell, whose Winter's Bone operates both as a kind of Ozarks Antigone and chilling contemporary tale at once, as adapted (with Anne Rossellini) and brought to the screen in 2010 by Debra Granik.
Too often, when we're served these stories of regional mayhem, whether Killer Joe or Lawless (2012), it's all so much KFC in the guise of something genuinely Southern. The chicken franchise actually features prominently in Killer Joe, where it is referred to as "K-Fry-C" by the titular killer. Only Matthew McConaughey's gonzo performance in the lead makes the lurid trash of Tracy Lett's story (is there a more overrated write in America?) worthwhile. Even then, be warned: you may never look at a drumstick quite the same again.
To see where Cold in July fails is to be reminded where superior films like Winter's Bone or last year's Mud (featuring yet another strong McConaughey turn) succeed. Mud, despite its own contrived flare-up of violence at the film's climax, succeeds even more by Jeff Nichols' storytelling than his steady direction. In Mud there is something that seems genuinely of an American region, marrying elements both contemporary and relatively timeless, a strength of writing that Nichols has demonstrated through his three features (Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011) being the first two).
It will be interesting to see what Jim Mickle does going forward. It's a shame that he's limited with a story in Cold in July that lacks the conviction, the bones to carry the weight that it takes on. A scene relatively late in the film, in which Dane does a bit of reconnaissance in a video store operated as a front by the younger Russell and his criminal partners suggests something far more interesting than what the film finally delivers. The very brief look we get at Wyatt Russell (this the actor's name, as opposed to Freddy Russell, the character) as the lost son teases us with a complex presence: dangerous, seductive, lost; a life that might have gone quite differently. Would that Cold in July had started with the fascinated, fatally flawed father and son, instead of the Michael C. Hall character with whom it begins and ends.