Jim Mickle’s macho Texan revenge thriller Cold in July is more than just a hardboiled dose of old-school ass-kicking and explores a crisis of masculinity in the struggles of family-man Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall). Adapted from Joe R. Lansdale’s 1989 novel of the same name, Cold in July uses the conceptual theme of fear as a motivator to unspool a series of mysteries that apparently have no end. As the plot thickens, the film layers up murder mysteries, cop conspiracies, prostitution and, the beating heart of it all, family matters. After protective father Richard kills an intruder in self-defence, he goes into cahoots with a grizzly ex-convict Russel (a roughened Sam Shepard) and the smooth and glitzy sheriff Jim Bob (Don Johnson). The men team-up to investigate Russel’s missing son, which leads them into gun-toting mayhem.
Cold in July is oddly restless for a film that taps into the glumness of commonplace scenarios and situations and there is always a steady anticipation for chills to come. In the opening sequence, a shrill clock chime sends Richard in panic and he pulls the trigger of small firearm to kill a burglar and splatters a thick gloss of red blood across the living-room wall of his house. There is something inherently horrific about the everydayness of Mickle’s meek and pulpy rendition of the vengeful tale. The sense of urgency and the innate capacity to kill recalls John Carpenter’s restrained hallmark pumpkin slasher Halloween (1978). Like an obscured glimpse of a masked Michael Myers loitering in the shadowy nooks of a house, there is a constant threat of the unpredictable and Richard must overcome his own illusory boogeymen to prove his masculine worth. Mickle’s dexterity in transitioning between an angst-ridden and fraught atmosphere to moments of eerie and spooky horror creates a thick and edgy tone.
The film creates a dark and brooding experience, forged by Ryan Samul’s crisp cinematography and the throbbing electronic soundscape. The music mirrors Richard’s pulse and the pace often plateaus to a steady beat until gung-ho skirmishes with armed men quicken the film’s tempo. The crackle of gunshots adds to the film’s brutality with its disorienting sharp ringing. Sounds of aural conflict are equally framed with visual intensity; shadows and lighting are used to reveal as much as conceal and the reserved and opportune editing matches the tone of the bleak atmosphere. In the film’s grandest shoot-out, Richard and his renegade companions raid a compound to find Russel’s son. The action is often clunky as Richard clumsily blunders down corridors through endless gunfire. After a brief scuffle lands Richard in a panic for his weapon, he fires a round into an unarmed man on lookout and the blood coats the lighting fixture to smother the room in a vibrant red. The scene recalls Clarice Starling’s (Jodie Foster) ascension into the red-lit chamber that cages Anthony Hopkins’ menacing Hannibal Lecter. Like The Silence of the Lambs (1991), one of the greatest achievements of Cold in July is its creation of continuous foreboding and fear.
The violence in Cold of July is awkward and extremely brutal, as painful psychologically as it is physically. Richard’s psyche is conflicted as he evolves from nervous wreck to gun-slinging and virile brute. The film takes its time to allow the violence to settle and the gore-spattered patterns that ink the walls are like Rorschach stains that map Richard’s ever-distorting mentality, memorialising his conquests in battle. Cold in July shares a fierceness with another film released in the last year: Blue Ruin (2013); Richard’s ordinariness is echoed in the unkempt shagginess of the earlier film’s wide-eyed protagonist Dwight (Macon Blair).
Below the bloodied textures of Mickle’s thriller is a tale of masculine transition and crisis, similar to the weight of masculine responsibility in Blue Ruin. As the breadwinner and family protector, Richard is burdened by the supposed duties of his masculine identity. Only the impending threat of another man on his territory causes him to unleash his violent side and Richard and Russel bond over their shared paternal instincts. Russel is a dishevelled mess and uses the whining of his gun to emote his fierceness. Big-hatted Jim Bob plays like a lyric from a Bon Jovi chorus and his devilish charm and eighties appeal mark his amusing personality and unmatched machismo.
The darkly comic and rapt thriller utilises cinematography and soundscape to capture an impression of the eighties. Whilst the plot does leave loose ends dangling, Cold in July is a slice of gritty rural America with big hair and big guns aplenty that effectively constructs a genuine impression of fear.
Cold in July is in cinemas now.