Cannes 2014: ‘Cold in July’ review

It seems fitting that the UK rebirth of Icon Film Distribution – whose final release before an impromptu hiatus was Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) – should continue with another synth-heavy eighties throwback. From director Jim Mickle, who’s proved himself such an able genre chameleon with past offerings Mulberry St, Stake Land and a superior English-language We Are What We Are remake, Cold In July (2014) sees the indie filmmaker return to the American south for a grisly, often tongue-in-cheek murderous rampage. Based on the Joe R. Lansdale pulp novel and screening at Cannes, Mickle’s latest is indebted to the Carpenters and Coens of this world, whilst offering little that’s new.

It’s a Lone Star state framer rather than a carpenter, Michael C. Hall’s husband and father Richard Dane, who finds himself at the centre of a town-wide furore after shooting an unarmed home intruder in the middle of the night. Visibly shaken by events, Dane is reassured by Sheriff Price (Stake Land’s Nick Damici) that “sometimes the good guys win”, and that he shouldn’t feel in any way guilty for pulling the trigger. However, when it transpires that the invader’s con father has just been released on parole, our man’s protective instincts go into overdrive. Confronting Dane at his son’s ill-attended funeral, Russell (Sam Shepard, again playing Sam Shepard) appears to threaten our protagonist’s wife and young son, although it soon transpires there are greater forces at work than mere paternal vengeance.

Cold In July’s opening third is an engaging and well-drawn depiction of a man at war with his own frayed nerves, as well as a darkly comic portrait of the banality of killing. As Dane busies himself purchasing imposing iron bars for his family home, his wife Ann (an introduced then cruelly culled Vinessa Shaw) is more worried about finding the right floral-patterned sofa to replace the one currently caked in dried blood and brain matter. Unfortunately, as Russell’s role in events to come becomes clearer and Mickle’s narrative jerks from one jolting swerve to another, any brooding meditation into the role of the modern man as king of his castle – as well as a subtle indictment of America’s relaxed attitude towards firearm ownership – quickly dissipates into the ether. The inferior replacement that bowls into town turns out to to be a semi-humorous ‘sins of the father’ revenger, with various 80s paraphernalia, sadistic snuff movies and Don Johnson’s wisecracking, pig-farming P.I. thrown in for good measure.

If Stake Land and We Are What We Are taught us one thing, it was that humans were the real monsters to watch out for. In that respect, Cold In July is no different, the antagonists of the piece just about as base and vile as you can get this side of an Adam Sandler movie. However, so distracted does Mickle get with his tagged-on retro aesthetic that he forgets to weld together the disparate components of this exploitation cut-and-shop job. As rickety as a banged-up Pontiac, the film’s meandering script references everything from Blood Simple and Cape Fear to Night of the Living Dead and even Refn’s Drive in order to curry favour with your garden variety cult movie cinephile. Sadly, what it forgets to do is to style a unique vision of its own. Though not without merit, Cold In July finds Mickle happily stalled in front of the drive-in cinema screens of his youth. Let’s just hope he can find the exit.

The 67th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May 2014. For more Cannes coverage, simply follow this link.

Daniel Green