Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Bloody Violence, Language and some Sexuality/Nudity
Directed by: Jim Mickle
Written by: Jim Mickle & Nick Damici
(based on the novel COLD IN JULY by Joe R. Lansdale)
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard, Vinessa Shaw, Nick Damici & Wyatt Russell
It’s a rare thing when a filmmaker leaps from the Midnight section at Sundance in one year to the much more prestigious Competition category during the next. Such is the case with Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, who have yet to make a bad film. Their previous three efforts have been horror (MULBERRY STREET, STAKE LAND, and the remake of WE ARE WHAT WE ARE), but they step into gritty crime thriller territory with this adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s cult novel. It shows that the pair are continuing to further their talent, because this is their best work yet.
Set in 1989 Texas, we follow Richard Dane, an upstanding citizen and beloved family man. One night, he hears sounds of an intruder in his house. After reassuring his wife and checking on his young son, Richard loads his father’s gun and slowly creeps down the hall. In an act of self-defense, he shoots the home invader and becomes the focus of unwanted attention in the town. Unfortunately, the attention has also been captured of the intruder’s convict father, Ben Russell, who begins a quest for revenge on Dane’s family. Then things take a surprising turn and a far more sinister truth is revealed.
That basic premise sounds familiar, but is far from what the actual plot winds up being. COLD IN JULY is a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat in the most literal way. You have no idea where it’s heading (unless you’ve read the novel, which I haven’t). Mickle and Damici do a phenomenal job of keeping the viewer’s interest by constructing a gritty mystery that has a hovering sense of unease. I knew things were just going to keep getting more twisted, but I had no idea how far the film would go. The answer is insanely far. It’s a dark, but very rewarding experience.
The setting of the 1980’s is captured very well and adds to the grittier nature of the film. Appearances of VHS tapes, VCRs, large satellite phones, the soundtrack, and bad hairstyles are commonplace here. It’s not done in a distracting fashion either, this just happens to be when the story is set. The atmosphere of quiet tension and dread is apparent through the entire film, only intensifying with each new disturbing discovery. Again, you really won’t know what hit you when the end credits begin to roll. This isn’t the movie you expect it to be and I praise it to the heavens for that.
The cast is great, with some familiar faces from Mickle’s previous films popping in as side characters. The real stars here are the trio of pure talent that comes with Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson. Props especially to Michael C. Hall for convincing me of his character. This man is far different from his role in DEXTER (of which I’ve seen every episode, some multiple times). It takes great skill to play roles so diversely that you forget you’re watching this actor and become completely invested in the character. Hall is more than up to the task and delivers. Veteran actor Sam Shepard is intense as the revenge-seeking father of the deceased home invader. Don Johnson delivers a wholly unique badass in a pig-farmer/detective who brings some much welcomed laughs.
My only complaint with this film comes in two unanswered questions that are bothersome enough that I am barely not giving this movie a perfect review. It could be seen as nitpicking and to bring up the specifics would be delving into spoiler territory. If there’s one thing you shouldn’t do with this movie, it’s find out too many details before watching it. A lot of the suspense comes from the unexpected and though the film is still going to be amazing on repeat viewings, I can see the experience being a bit lessened by someone spoiling any of the twists.
COLD IN JULY is a movie that simultaneously entertains and delivers a shotgun blast (much like some that are fired by the film’s conclusion) to the viewer’s emotions. It’s a dark, gritty crime thriller! By the time the intense finale has come around, characters have found themselves in a far larger scenario than they ever could have imagined with plenty of human darkness to boot. Highly recommended!