Based on the 1989 novel by Joe R. Lansdale, Jim Mickle’s Cold in July (2014) is an entertaining Southern noir with a distinctly eighties feel. An intruder breaking and entering into a family home, wakes passive family man and framer Richard Dane, played by a mullet sporting, post- Dexter Michael C. Hall. Richard protective of his family and spooked by the intruder fires and kills the man. The local police officer Ray (Mickle’s regular collaborator and co-writer Nick Damici) reassure him he did the right thing, but the dead young man’s father turns out to be a murderous ex-con Russell (Sam Shepard) who now is hell bent on revenging himself against Richard and his young family.
However, not all is as it seems and as the identity of the intruder is called into question, and as the conspiracy deepens, the two men – with the help of boisterous red convertible driving private detective Jim Bob (a garrulous and exuberant Don Johnson) – must team up to get to the truth of the dead man’s identity and the whereabouts of Russell’s son. Jim Mickle has long been a director to watch. His 2006 debut Mulberry Street, with its rat spreading mutation plague, set out stakes as low budget but stylishly witty horror. Four years later, 2010’s Stake Land was a more ambitious, Malick-like take on the vampire/undead apocalypse, whilst last year’s Cannes bow We Are What We Are (2013) was a deviously savage deconstruction of the founding mythology of the American frontier family.
If Cold in July isn’t exactly a breakdown, it does feel like an enjoyable but unnecessary detour. With a thumping straight to video eighties soundtrack by Jim Grace, the film sounds like a tongue-in-cheek grindhouse pastiche, but a little bit like Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007), Mickle can’t quite bring himself to go nuts. So what we get instead is an overly-respectful, slick, tonally confused and intermittently entertaining thriller. With the acting talent on hand everyone seems to be in a slightly different film. Hall struggles to get out in front of his mullet, though Johnson is blusteringly hilarious and Shepard is always good to watch as the patriarch with the itchy trigger finger. Cold in July has its moments, especially in the performances of the three leads and the grungier last act, when the brakes finally come off, but it still feels a little like a midnight movie which wants to get an early night – too well-made and self-conscious to be an out and out success.