The neo-noir Cold in July operates at a steady sizzle. A body turns up dead before the film’s opening credits: It becomes the opening salvo that propels the characters into a confusing vortex of guilt, revenge, corruption, and vice.
Set in East Texas in 1989 (that near-past era before cell phones and DNA testing made mystery plotting a much trickier business), Cold in July is based on a novel by Joe Lansdale, and the screenplay is adapted by director Jim Mickle and his writing partner Nick Damici (who also has an onscreen role in the film). The time period also fits the story’s underlying depiction of various modalities of masculinity.
During the dead of night in the film’s opening sequence, Ann (Shaw) and Richard (Hall) Dane are woken from their sleep by the sound of an intruder in their house. With shaking hands, Richard loads bullets into his revolver and creeps downstairs to the living room where he defensively guns down the intruder. The police have no problem with the shooting (thanks to stand-your-ground laws) and quickly identify the corpse as a known and wanted criminal. Still, Richard is sickened by the killing, which resulted, in truth, from his jumpy trigger finger. He foolishly goes to the cemetery to witness the burial, where the dead man’s father, Ben Russell (Shepard) – a rough character who has just been released from prison – threatens the life of Richard’s young son. Richard does what he can to protect his family, but soon discovers that the police are the last ones he should count on. Several more plot twists take place before the film reaches its finale, many of the revelations coming via the help of Jim Bob (Johnson), a flashy private eye from Houston.
The trio of men at the center of this dark tale is a study in contrasts: Richard, the family man, with a distaste for violence; Ben, the leathery ex-con, bent on vengeance; and Jim Bob, the vivid peacock who comes barreling into this mystery in a cherry red convertible. Johnson drills down into the role of Jim Bob, a somewhat comical country slicker who more than holds his own against two icons of modern drama, Hall and Shepard. Cinematographer Ryan Samul (who worked with Mickle on his previous horror features, Stake Land and We Are What We Are) captures all the foreboding flickers that dart through the dark nights of this story and that make Cold in July an early summertime refresher.
For an interview with Jim Mickle and Joe Lansdale on the making of the film, see “Taking the Temperature of ‘Cold in July,’” May 30.