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Bizarre 'Cold in July' is a Wild Thriller

Michael C. Hall plays one of many colorful characters in rising star Jim Mickle's latest.

(IFC Films)
(IFC Films)

Long story short: A drama with a horror soundtrack, Jim Mickle's genre-bending film is a picture of colorful characters and unspeakable evil.

Cold in July will remind you of: Cape Fear, Out of the Furnace, Killer Joe, A History of Violence

Review: If you turned over the biggest rock in Texas, you'd find some of the characters of Cold in July scurrying for cover. The movie is a journey to the weird little corners of sleepy Americana to find the evil that dwells in the shadows. Director Jim Mickle has shown promise with his previous work, but his latest is a leap forward. Cold in July is a mature film with a B movie streak, a natural step the evolution of a director we may be talking about for years to come.

Mickle, who's given us a legit vampire masterpiece (Stake Land) and old school horror suspense (We Are What We Are) in recent years, brings his terror techniques back down to Earth in Cold in July. Vampires and cannibals are all well and good, but true terror comes from a place of reality. Mickle opts for a much more traditional story this time, or so it would seem. Cold in July begins rather conventionally, but soon it's obvious you're in the middle of something. Cormac McCarthy would call it a "jackpot." Just when you think Mickle has gone conventional, he pulls the rug out.

East Texas, 1989 flashes on the screen as Cold in July warms up. There's a bump in the night and a frame store owner with a bad haircut and worse mustache awakens from slumber and starts loading his .38. Minutes later, a man is dead in the living room and Richard (Michael C. Hall), the frame store owner, is thinking about how he's going to clean the blood off of his wall. 

The shooting is ruled self-defense, Richard can go back to his life. But the story shifts when the burglar's father, Russel (Sam Shepard) suddenly shows up in Max Cady mode, leaving bullets in Richard's kid's room and talking payback for his son's death. Richard freaks out and enlists the help of the local police. Russel is apprehended, but a series of twists results in Richard saving Russel's life, kidnapping him, and the two forming a delicate partnership. Yup, things get wild. Adapted faithfully from Joe R. Lansdale's novel by Mickle and Nick Damici, Cold in July is modern Texas pulp: unpredictable insanity.

As the story progresses, Richard and Russel uncover an unthinkable crime. They hire a pig-farming, cadillac-driving private dick named Jim Bob (Don Johnson), who infuses the film with a scummy air of venality in the spirit of Mickle's past work. The three men compliment each other wonderfully. Hall is jittery and explosive as the everyman, Richard. He's a guy let loose from the shackles of his everyday existence and fighting for his family's safety. Russel is the opposite - an ex-con with a permanent 100-yard stare. He's a straight up shit-kicker and Shepard gives the character a knowing intelligence. Then there's Johnson who plays roles like Jim Bob in his sleep. His mere presence makes you smile.

Cold in July falters near the end as Mickle struggles to wrap things up neatly, but it works overall based on the strength of its characters the actors behind them. Plus, Mickle's fingerprints are all over the place. The director's love of John Carpenter shows up in the form of a very Halloween-esque score (by Jeff Grace) that drives pivotal moments in the film. It's an eerie touch and one horror fans will eat up. Mickle also shows yet again he's a master of suspense. His scenes have a distinct forward momentum that keep you engaged and the story has enough twists to keep you guessing. Cold in July is a versatile film, built of many genres and belonging to none. It's a pulp horror suspense thriller: a Jim Mickle film. Remember the name.

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