Sunday 7 December 2014

Review: Cold in July

Year: 2014
Director: Jim Mickle
Screenplay: Jim Mickle, Nick Damici
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw

Synopsis is here:

After reading a few of Joe R Landsdale short stories, I've found him to be an entertaining writer who manages to capture a reader's imagination quickly with his snappy potboilers. Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back, for instance, is a sharp sci-fi balanced with a somber heartache, which manages a considerable sense of scope, yet can be finished before the end of your train journey. Jim Mickle is a filmmaker whose filmography capture an unusual blend of American gothic and playful genre switching that is warmly welcomed for a film viewer such as myself.

I found it no surprise that Mickle's film version of Landsdale's novel; Cold in July, shows that the writers' material and the director's style of storytelling and thematic focal points provide a good foil for each other.

From the start of the film, I found myself gripped. Our mild mannered protagonist; Richard shoots a young trespassing burglar and find himself struggling with the moral concerns of taking a man's life. We sink further down the rabbit hole as we discover that the thief's father; Ben (an intensely stoic Sam Shepard), is out on parole and is looking for vengeance towards the man who killed his son. We soon find out that the cops haven't been as honest with the situation as they could have been what could have been a clear cut case, becomes a twisted noir, which brings both Richard together in ways they wouldn't have thought of when they found each other.

What looks to be a straight forward film about survival and revenge, soon bends into something different entirely. Mickle's film starts of as a Cape Fear style thriller by way of John Carpenter before morphing into a History of Violence tinged noir, in which the murky sins of the family slowly creeping into the present lives of the characters we follow. Micheal C Hall's awkward and frightened family man, may feel slightly one note at times, it's clear that he's enjoying being able to play a character who is clearly out of his element. Watching his face has the twisted sense of honour is revealed by both Ben and his P.I cohort Jim (a spirited Don Johnson) is quite a picture.

The chilly, stark backwoods of Mickle's Stake Land (2010) and We Are What We Are (2013) are replaced with a highly stylised, sun baked Texas, which, despite its rich, saturated colours feels no less dark than the films that came before it. What first appears as a clean cut man troubled by the moral quandary that comes with murder, descends into something much murkier when he finds his life inhabited by characters who have dealt with death before. We expect clarity from the situation at first, but Mickle is a filmmaker who enjoys clouding the ethics of the people we watch. He wants everyone to feel a little dirty.

The 80's setting and references work well with the story and never distract from it. It never feels like fancy nostalgia. Nor does it feel like it should be altered. Meanwhile Mickle's genre blending here, feels much like Stake Land, which happily moved between gothic and road movie with a quietly observed sense of satisfaction. Mickle once again easily shows how assured he is a director as Cold in July easily slips and shifts in tone, brings in dark humour and a cold sense of dread, and never feels jarring.

It is a shame that Vinessa Shaw's solid (although slightly shrewish) wife is pushed to the side, making sure the film is unable to truly create some complex family and gender dynamics. However, as a pulpy, contorted thriller about masculinity, fatherhood and just how far some are willing to stride into the darkness. Cold in July is one of most fascinating genre pieces of the year.