You ever try to grab something on a tall shelf, only to find that after all, you need a step stool? Just like six more inches of height, and whatever you were reaching for was in your grasp. Without the step stool, you can scrape your fingers on the desired item, even move it a bit. But it's not enough. Cold in July, the pulp thriller drama from relatively new director Jim Mickle, is like that. The performances are great. The cinematography is great. Don Johnson is unbelievably great. This movie gets so close to greatness, it's frustrating. Unfortunately, this movie never quite reaches high enough, never elevates itself past its contrived story or better films of its genre.
Cold in July is set in East Texas in the late '80s. Michael C. Hall, of "Dexter" fame, plays Richard Dane, a regular family man. He rocks a fierce mullet and a face that often goes from pained to shocked to confused to ecstatic to angry all in the same scene—and Hall makes that work really well. Vinessa Shaw is wasted as his supportive but oblivious wife.
From the opening images, this movie has the audience in its grasp. An intruder breaks into Dane's house, and Dane shoots him dead with a single shot. Living in Missoula this year, you can't help but be moved and provoked by watching the fallout of a man having killed someone in his, ahem, castle. And for the first quarter of this movie, that's what you're dealing with. Some townsfolk pat Dane on the back. Some just stare, judging him and his family. All of this is entrancing and yet hard to watch because it's so wonderfully uncomfortable.
Enter Sam Shepard as Russell, the father of the dead intruder. He predictably harasses Dane and fam, Cape Fear-style. Shepard rolls through this part of the movie with steely eyes, a soft gruff voice and a calm, cool demeanor reserved for only the baddest bad guys. He ducks the police, threatens Dane's child (bullets by a ripped up teddy bear is a particularly vivid and terrifying image), and wreaks all kinds of havoc—for about 10 to 15 minutes.
- Nothing says “cowboy” like red zebra print.
Then that part wraps up, in comes Don Johnson, and all of the twists. Plot twist after plot twist, turn after turn. A film where you're watching people you're invested in gets turned into a contrived nuisance incredibly fast. Who's in the grave? Who are the Dixie Mafia? What's the FBI doing now? Why are the police trying to kill everyone? What about Dane's wife? Doesn't matter, that storyline was nearly an hour ago! They literally phone in the wife's part of the story for the last 45 minutes, and these questions never get answered.
But even with all that, you're still with it. It's a visually captivating movie, with echoes of previous pulp thrillers throughout. Most notably, there are visual nods and homages to the Cohen Brothers' amazing Blood Simple. But where that movie's pace and twists are character- and story-driven, or are at least fun plot devices, Cold In July's turns and revelations come through like a bad magician's trick. In Blood Simple, you watch someone dig a grave in a field, and you're filled with a horror that only grows the whole time. In Cold in July, you just watch a couple of guys dig a grave for a couple of minutes.
None of this can overshadow the new man-crush I have on Don Johnson. He plays Jim Bob, a veteran of the Korean War, now a Texas pig farmer turned private eye. He helps Dane and Russell uncover and unravel the mystery of whatever momentary plot twist has you rolling your eyes. Quipping and smirking his way through the film, Johnson makes this movie what it was: almost great.
By the end of the film, things get predictably bloody and over-the-top violent. There are few consequences for Jim Bob and nearly none whatsoever for Dane, and that's pretty much it. The film leaves you with sort of an empty feeling.
But, Don Johnson, man. Let's find that guy more work.
Cold in July continues at the Wilma.