Dir: Jim Mickle
Starring: Michael C Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard, Wyatt Russell, Vinessa Shaw and Nick Damici
After shooting a would-be burglar in his house, small town frame maker, Richard Dane (Hall) soon finds himself embroiled in a sinister conspiracy. With the fear for his family’s safety, Dane finds himself teaming up with an ex-con and private investigator as they venture down a road of dark deceit and violence.
Jim Mickle skyrocketed into my awareness earlier this year with the simply sublime ‘We Are What We Are’ remake and I was already incredibly excited at the prospect of seeing more of his work. The promise of a dark Southern noir had me at hello as it seems to be an awesome blossoming sub-genre.
What I was met with was nothing short of a complete and utter mess of quite startlingly high proportions. Was this seriously made by the same director? Was the overriding thought that stuck in my head for what felt like an eternity and yet a mere 109 minutes. The film is absolutely all over the shop with a troubling identity crisis. It has all the outer seeming of a gritty, sun-baked southern noir and yet, bizarrely, elements from road movies, buddy movies, 80s crime dramas, home invasion horror and grindhouse are all rammed together with no thought spared for narrative cohesion.
At times, it felt almost as though three separate and arguably very bland crime thrillers had been human centipeded together, in the hopes that maybe three times the level of seen before crime drama could approach something verging on compelling. It didn’t. Lifeless dialogue, uninteresting characters and the whole thing felt incredibly tired and the apparent real verve Mickle has for being creative, completely tossed aside, which is a real shame.
It would be an unfair comparison to stand this next to ‘We Are What We Are’ as they are both completely different genres of film. It is certainly perplexing, however, that where Mickle showed such note-perfect restraint and terrifyingly bare bones human cruelty with ‘WAWWA’, here he seems to have completely lost his touch. A more apt comparison would be to the tragically under-seen but beautifully dark and haunting, ‘Blue Ruin’ that was released earlier in the year. Both concern seemingly unlikely killers faced with terrifying odds, but where ‘Blue Ruin’ had the hugely sympathetic and ‘innocent’ Macon Blair, ‘Cold In July’ has Michael C Hall.
Now it must be said, that Hall is by far and a way the best thing about ‘Cold In July’ in that he is the only actor not playing some form of terribly dated southern small town stereotype. Whilst he does cut a sympathetic figure, his shift from naive family man to gunslinger is far too quick and unbelievable. It’s impossible not to be reminded by his grim visage of previous performances from two separate TV shows in which he was responsible for putting an awful lot of people in the ground.
It’s certainly a case that this is a ‘boy’s own’ story where Dane’s poor suffering wife is completely reduced to the sidelines and towards the final third, she and her son are dropped completely from the narrative. Perhaps this was a small mercy, if she was anything like as excruciatingly one-dimensional as the other ‘characters’.
Sam Shepard’s grizzled ex-con comes across as a poor man’s Nick Nolte, grumbling incoherently about various things and using his gun to shoot stuff, because that’s what MEN do! Into this shambles is thrown Don Johnson who, to all the world, looks as though he just walked off the set of ‘Dallas’ or god forbid a new ‘Cannonball Run’ film. Cowboy hat, boots and flashy car lined with garish red leather in tow, his exaggerated smooth-talking cool cat demeanour clashes horribly with the harsh real world drama the rest of the film is attempting to create. We as an audience are left unsure as to whether or not we’re supposed to laugh or to actually take him seriously when he’s blowing a load of do-badders away and then dropping quips here and there.
Fundamentally, it is the film’s relentless restlessness that completely blocks any form of real character development or audience investment as to what on earth is actually happening. Having done some research, I discovered that this is remaining truthful to the novel upon which the film is based but it simply does not translate onto the big screen. There remain huge gaping plot-holes that are irritatingly never answered or even mentioned again. The dramatic mood swings from cold and serious to something approaching almost Coen Brothers-esque hyper-reality macabre humour throw you completely off-balance and leave you unsure as to just what you are supposed to be feeling for the characters or situation.
When the film does get dark and full of tension, in the opening section of the film, it does a fantastic if done before job of conjuring up extreme threat levels. The fact that it is able to achieve this simply by showing a teddy bear that’s been hit by a bullet is hugely impressive. It is a problem, however, that once Shepard’s character gets captured and the film again changes its mind as to what it thinks it wants to be, all these levels of dread plummet like a stone and never built up to the same levels even during the film’s bloody climax.
There have been films in which dramatic tonal shifts can add a hugely intriguing and unexpected quality, such as the drastic 180 degree turn in ‘Kill List’. With ‘Cold In July’, however, the constant jumping from different style and tone is undisciplined and largely unpalatable. It is clear that Mickle has the potential for creating a gritty crime thriller, but this original direction is lost in amongst wave after wave of badly disjointed ideas that are loosely stitched together in a sadly haphazard manner.
Verdict: A muddled misfire from Mickle that simply doesn’t know what it wants to be. 2/10