Based on the novel of the same name, ‘Cold In July’ tells the story of an average man named Richard Dane who one night accidentally shoots and kills an intruder in his home. Richard then discovers that the intruder was a wanted felon named Freddy Russell who was also the son of a paroled convict, and when Richard attends Freddy’s funeral, his father Ben Russell threatens him and his family.
The film for a third of the runtime is a straight-forward revenge thriller with the police and the Dane family under threat from the recently paroled convict. But when you think you can predict the rest of the plot, Richard Dane looks at a wanted poster on the Police noticeboard of Freddy Russell, sees his mugshot, and it doesn’t resemble the man he’s killed. The plot then goes in a completely different direction with Richard discovering that he’s been lied to and even set-up by the town’s Sheriff. Once we find out that Ben’s son is still alive, the storyline switches to a very different movie. Richard and Ben pair-up and with the help of Ben’s friend, a private detective, the trio set out to find the whereabouts of the real Freddy Russell and why the authorities wanted to fake his death.
‘Cold In July’ starts off almost flawlessly with a fantastic atmosphere and the right amount of tension, the story is well paced, and the director successfully creates an appropriate tone. Around the 1 hour mark however, the film starts to become almost a different movie once private investigator Jim Bob Luke (played by Don Johnson) shows up. The scene where Jim drives up to Dane’s store feels disjointed compared to the rest of the movie and even looks tacky. For around five minutes we’re confronted with a completely different tone that feels jarring and even caricatured, there’s even a contrived country song that plays as Jim’s horn-grill car pulls up. Ignoring that scene however and you’ve got a pretty solid film, and when you come to terms with the fact that the revenge element has been retired, the rest of the film is very watchable.
‘Cold In July’ is a movie that obviously doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed although it remains a satisfying thriller for the majority of its length. The film is quite clearly two plots that although connected, feel slightly rushed and even shoddily put together possibly so not to elongate the runtime. Once Richard, Ben, and Jim Bob team up it veers off into a movie about estranged fathers and their sons, and being responsible for your children’s actions (there’s a great line about how your child is like a pet – “When your dog goes bad on you, you can either chain him up or put him down”).
From the point at which it’s revealed that Richard Dane didn’t kill Ben Russell’s son, ‘Cold In July’ goes from a revenge thriller to a drama about justice and parental responsibility with an added subplot about snuff movies. Once you get over this slight plot-change the film becomes an enthralling watch once again, and going from ‘Cape Fear’ to ‘8mm’ is at least unusual from the audience’s point of view. The fact that you don’t know what’s coming makes for an interesting watch.
Pretty much all the cast do a good job playing their respective roles; Sam Shepard is brilliant as the understated, grieving but revenge-filled father and Michael C. Hall of ‘Dexter’ fame proves he’s much more than a TV actor brilliantly playing the slightly timid father and husband. Richard’s wife played by Vinessa Shaw also does a good job for the small time she’s on screen. Freddy Russell (played by actor Wyatt Russell) with his handle-bar moustache and seedy grin and his two cohorts are also very believable as snuff movie makers and distributors. The scene where Hall’s character does a spot of reconnaissance on their video store is tense especially with Gregory Russell Cook playing a skinhead taking offence at Richard’s question about “foreign films”.
The score like the film also changes occasionally, jumping between a Fargo-esque string to an ’80s B-Movie electronic synth. Although this soundtrack (which also includes a few Rock songs) keeps up with the flow of the film and adds to the mood, it on occasion sounds too Sci-Fi for a throwback thriller set in the summer.
Set in East Texas in 1989 (which is the time of the book’s release) the film which is shot with a Red Epic camera looks too digital to believably portray the late eighties, to top it off it doesn’t look like there’s been any attempt at adding grain or any kind of filters to make the “clean” look look more gritty or filmic. I’d also add that by ’89 a moody yet simplistic synth sound was all but in the past. For these reasons the period in which ‘Cold In July’ is supposed to be set in isn’t altogether believable.
I’ve read that writer-director Jim Mickle wanted to explore “masculine themes” which he felt could only be told in the past, and that’s another reason for the 1989 setting. For me however, the film isn’t necessarily “masculine” and if it were to be transposed to the present day, the only thing that would need to be changed is the public phone to a smartphone and the VHS tapes to thumb-drives or Blu-ray discs. The characters and their lines wouldn’t feel out of place in 1999 or 2009, and the fact that all the leads are males just feels like a coincidence to me. There’s no overtly three-decade-old elements that are too “manly” or out-of-date for today – to me that just sounds like an unneeded liberal apology-cum-excuse for making a film that has an entirely male cast except for one character.
‘Cold In July’ does have a few things wrong with it namely the two distinct plot-lines. Either of them on their own (the revenge movie or the investigation-slash-snuff movie) are great but the cut and shut job that is the final film only works if you ignore the noticeable weld during the mid-point. But, having said that, the enthralling tone and pace that’s generated during the first hour is then slowly built up again for the final part of the film. This is by no means a flawless movie, but it has likeable characters, talented actors, an engrossing mood, and enough thrills to not only keep you satisfied, but to make you watch it more than once.
Warm In July.