Cold in July’s Pulpy Precision

CIJ_STILL-296There I was, sitting in the IFC Center, furious about Edgar Wright’s departure from Ant-man, cursing the movie gods… and then Cold in July took over. Cold in July is a perfectly-crafted film that is built on genre archetypes and tropes while also feeling like a natural and multifaceted story. It’s a good step forward for Jim Mickle, who brings his great sense for the dark underbelly of rural America and his nigh-Spielbergian father themes to bear in a whole new kind of story, one that thrills and disturbs in equal measure.

Cold in July’s strength is how it moves through a very carefully calibrated progression that ends up taking it through several different genre elements in a way that feels unified and natural. After the inciting incident of the shooting of a burglar (a simple but visceral moment), the film then lingers on the aftermath, showing Richard Dane (Michael C Hall) struggling to come to grips with what he’s done and with how other people react to it. From there, we get the arrival of Ben Russell (Sam Shepard), the supposed father of Richard’s home invader, and the story takes on a Cape Fear flavor. But then by sheer chance, Richard’s curiosity about his victim is piqued and the film takes on a more straight-up noir/detective feel, which then carries us through to the bloody climax and some unfortunate revelations about the progeny of old Ben. These various elements blend and lead into each other seamlessly, without any noticeable hiccup or narrative whiplash, a very commendable accomplishment that helps the film from becoming predictable or obvious.

What facilitates this easy melding of elements is the total focus on character, and letting events come naturally from the actions and motivations of the major players. Richard is just an everyman whose life is turned upside down by this awful moment, to the point that he becomes driven to find out the why behind it all just so it will make sense to him. Ben on the other hand, is the hard ex-con, furious over the death of his son… but really furious at himself over how his absence must have ruined the boy. Those dual motivations alone drive them film, and push both men into pursuit of a dark underworld neither of them is up for. They are aided in this quest by Jim Bob (Don Johnson), a colorful PI that could command his own movie, who’s mostly there out of obligation to his old friend Ben, but clearly has a strong enough sense of values to want to help the others put down this mad dog they find themselves chasing. Even Richard’s wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) feels like a fleshed-out character, a hard-nosed woman who won’t stand for this danger to her family, or her husband letting his guilt affect their lives. It’s these well-drawn characters with their clear senses of purpose that unify the film into it’s grand whole.

That unity is also certainly helped by Jim Mickle’s clear directorial style and vision, which is distinctive but not overdone. The visuals are mostly straightforward during the day, but this movie lives in the nighttime and Mickle dominates those scenes with a mixture of green and rich blacks. He’s also got some great dialogue that’s equal parts laid-back East Texas and hard-nosed film noir (and even if he and co-writer/co-star Nick Damici lifted that from Joe R Lansdale’s book it’s still well-used here). But the surprisingly effective element here is the ‘80s-style synth score, which plays on the audience’s familiarity with Carpenter-era genre film to help set the time and place of the film without leaning too much on period music. It also sets a steady, propulsive beat for the whole film, yet another collaborative element that helps tie the whole enterprise together.

Sometimes the biggest trick of filmmaking is making a genre film that doesn’t feel like a genre film, and that’s exactly what Jim Mickle and company have achieved with Cold in July. It takes all of these disparate elements that, in the hands of lesser filmmakers, could have easily lead to a derivative final product that just felt like checking off tropes on a list. Instead we get the movie we get, which is a propulsive, distinctive, badass movie, and I get a new filmmaker that I will follow with great interest. And let’s be honest: I will follow him with great envy as well, because Cold in July is the kind of movie I would give certain body parts to make myself.

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