2 July 2014


If nothing else, Cold in July should probably be remembered for having one of the best trailers of the year. It successfully builds an atmosphere for the whole film right away, with its selective editing, enticing narrative hooks and foreboding synthesiser score. But the real achievement, amidst a glut of TMI movie marketing, is that it doesn't give away a single thing about the film's myriad twists and turns.

It feels safe, therefore, to tell you as much about the plot as the trailer reveals. Richard Dane is a family man who works in a store that sells picture frames in Texas in 1989. His world is turned upside down when he catches an intruder in his home one night and shoots him dead. Although he's celebrated for his bravery in the community, he feels overwhelming guilt from his actions. His unease proves to be well-founded when the ex-con father of the man he shot comes into town, looking for answers about his son.

This covers around half an hour of the film and there's a line of dialogue in that otherwise poker-faced trailer that hints at the direction in which it promptly hares off as soon as the second act starts. It's this first twist that effectively keeps you on the edge of your seat, in terms of wondering which unpredictable twist will be untangled next, but it also serves to make the deluge of plot turns feel somewhat rushed and even rudimentary. The story itself is convoluted, but the delivery is pure pulp noir, so to say that the plot comes "thick and fast" might put undue emphasis on the "thick" part of the equation.

Indeed, the major blow to suspension of disbelief comes the transition from the first movement of the film to the second, which asks huge questions about what we think we've seen so far and potential signposts as to where the rest of the film will go, all of which are strangely sidelined by events that follow. From an emotional point of view, the characters have bigger fish to fry, but in a narrative sense, it's not something that would go away so completely as this does. The crunching gear changes and dangling loose ends are largely the cause of the somewhat rushed feeling of the overall plot.

The film, scripted by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici from a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, seems more interested in saying something about masculinity and family. In this regard, it pales terribly next to the recent Blue Ruin. It's unfair to judge this film entirely based on a comparison to a film so different in tone, but Cold in July doesn't have anything nearly as interesting to say about its similar central themes, becoming more beholden to style than any real substance.

Still, the style is where it really stands out. Mickle also directed, and though the script has the same workman-like vibe as I got from his Stake Land, he does a marvellous job of capturing the tone of the hard-boiled 1980s noir mystery, both from the pages of Lansdale's book and the contemporaneous cinema. The score throbs with bass and synth and the cinematography by Ryan Samul is moody and captivating.

The cast is superb too, with Michael C. Hall making the most of Richard, a role that promises much but becomes a secondary consideration as the film goes on. Sam Shepard glowers as the vengeful father, Don Johnson more or less picks up where he left off around the time this is set and 22 Jump Street's Wyatt Russell makes a big impression as a very difficult character. The players keep the audience watching through the film's more perilous leaps in narrative logic and are actually so good as to convince you that this is all pretty good, at least until you think about it twice.

Cold in July left me feeling cold, rather than chilled, and its seediness and shock value fails to engender much investment in its deceptively simplistic and overly macho story. It's not a short film and the eclectic plot ensures that it moves quickly, but it gets through so much that it feels perfunctory in many regards. It has the high production value and terrific acting that has more recently been associated with quality television drama than with the big screen, but perhaps it could have used a little more screen time to explore its characters and story too.

Cold in July is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Cold in July, why not leave a comment below? In fact, why not ask all your unanswered questions about this one and see if we can figure something out together?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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