Traditionally a horror film maker, Jim Mickle takes on Joe R. Lansdale’s Texas set crime noir Cold In July in a sweaty, gore-soaked, testosterone-fuelled thriller. Mickle assembles a vintage cast including Sam Shepard (Black Hawk Down) and Don Johnson (Miami Vice, Nash Bridges) along with Michael C. Hall (Dexter, Six Feet Under) in a straight-to-video b-movie exploitation film, that is part True Detective and No Country for Old Men, but without the charm or philosophy.
Set in 1989 we are treated to some retrograde nostalgia where men were (still just about) men, VHS’s ruled the technology roost and synth-filled hair metal ruled the airwaves. While to some that sounds like hell, these factors are used smartly to tell a story and re-create a world that’s not so far away, as the “home movie” become an important plot point and the John Carpenter-esque soundtrack creates a welcome, creepy mood.
The film has some intriguing narrative pieces, initially with home invasion, mistaken identity, normal-guy-turned-local hero tropes, which turn on their head after the first act when Richard (Hall) saves Ben (Shepard)’s life after he has been terrorising his family for believing that Richard killed his son in self-defence. Unfortunately for those who like definable plots though, this more or less renders the first act of the film largely pointless, as the corrupt police chief who put Ben in danger in the first place is entirely forgotten about.
And so the “plot” plods on forgetting details along the way until it reaches it’s inevitable, silly, corner-written-in shoot-out climax. There are plenty of questionable morals in the film, sometimes for the best – the film briefly questions masculinity and the role of men taking danger and risk in a post-war/baby boomer generation world – but also for the worst, as it largely forgets these more interesting ideas for the sake of mindless, heroic action.
While that sort of macho-action thriller has a place, it is frustrating to watch a film that looks like it may do a decent job of questioning those questionable ultra-masculine themes only to succumb to them. Hall as the lead, Richard, doesn’t quite convey enough sympathy (or anything really) to make Richard a particularly engaging character, not helped by how similar his character looks to Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss in the aforementioned Coen Brothers’ pic.
Meanwhile Johnson is fairly ridiculous as the over-reaching detective Jim Bob, but Shepard does a decent job with the troubled father, even if we sort of forget he is an ex-convict after his initially terrifying turn as De Niro from Cape Fear. While the film has some brilliantly tense moments, it fails to really engage, or backup its ideas into anything tangible. By the time of the credits roll, we feel short changed with how much of the spotty narrative has been forgotten about, rather than left intentionally vague.