Cold In July, directed by Jim Mickle, is one of the most confusing films I’ve seen in a while. Not because the plot is complex or hard to follow (and believe me, we’ll come back to the plot later), and not because I missed some important information at a pivotal moment. Instead the confusion arises from the strange way the film has been assembled to begin with. A collage of aesthetics that, when blended together, creates to a sort of tonal seasickness.
Watching this film is like walking into a room that someone has intensively styled to a kitsch 50’s design mandate… and then made centrepiece a 17th century Queen Anne chair. There’s a clash of sensibilities that evokes a “does not compute” response. Now, quite often a juxtaposition of disparate styles can produce interesting, invigorating results. Other times, such as this one, the result seems merely ill thought-out. Let me explain.
Cold In July begins by setting us in a time and a place – Texas in 1989. Borrowing typeface and synth score stylings from John Carpenter, the movie immediately suggests that particular tone and feeling of a Carpenter movie before swinging full-boar in another direction altogether. The opening is pretty great. Richard Dane (Michael C Hall), a small-business owner with a wife and son, wakes in the night to the sound of his house being broken into. A timid family man, he flusters with a handgun that prior to that night has always been more of an heirloom than a weapon.
Dane kills the unarmed interloper in his house, out of dumb-luck more than anything else. Trouble is, the deceased criminal’s father has just been paroled and is likely to come looking for vengeance. All of this takes place in the first five minutes or so. Mickle’s film is good at quickly establishing a situation and throwing the audience into it. The home invasion is very tense, commendably so considering we’ve had precious little time to come to know Dane or his wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw).
Despite the initial hint of a Carpenteresque strut, the film then falls back (rather well) on the sombre mood of your typical Texan-noir, especially in the wake of No Country For Old Men; a film which hangs heavy over Mickle’s, as does the Coens’ Blood Simple (again, more on those later). The threat to the Dane family becomes very real as Sam Shepard’s craggy villain Russel intimidates and then outright threatens their cosy lives. In this initial stretch the film also feels the weight of its characters’ actions. Dane is troubled by the death he has caused. It preoccupies him. The practical matter of cleaning up his living room isn’t shied away from either.
This is all well and good. Nice and moody, the film aims to be thought of with the two aforementioned Coen Brothers films just as Blue Ruin did earlier this year. Not quite in the same league, maybe, but an admirable attempt at sharing prestige. But then… Then it starts getting away from Mickle. Bit by bit. Small things at first. Plot holes that yawn awkwardly (the first thing I would do if someone broke into my house is SEARCH THE HOUSE). New story lines are introduced, swerving our intrigue. Just as alarmingly old story lines are forgotten. Character motives are forgotten (that’s an important one, right?). Hell, entire characters are forgotten. And then Don Johnson shows up.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with Don Johnson in this movie. He’s a charismatic actor, as much here as anywhere else he’s been seen. But with him rides in a tonal shift that the movie simply hasn’t prepared us for. A walking, jawin’ caricature of rodeo bravura and vigilantism, Johnson’s Jim Bob (yes, Jim Bob) twists the Coens compass point from Blood Simple to O Brother Where Art Thou? Suddenly we’re in a picture about three hapless men on the road, bumbling their way through an adventure that outsizes them, each seeming less like a man and more like a punchline.
It’s a little awkward, to tell the truth, but not nearly as awkward as the next shift. Just as some violent physical comedy on a front lawn seems to settle Cold In July into its new persona, a late-in-the-game plot ‘development’ undoes this change, souring the story and sending it spiralling into a finale of gun-toting excess. What started out as a love letter to the likes of No Country For Old Men ends as this year’s Hobo With A Shotgun.
Seriously. That’s the most apt reference point I would go with here. This movie turns into Hobo With A Shotgun. A seedy, video-nasty-adoring splatter picture boasting as much subtlety as Rob Zombie’s usual fare. It’s not even Carpenteresque.
Credit where it’s due; everything is handled proficiently. This is adept filmmaking in a technical sense. Each scene can be enjoyed in and of itself. But step back from it even slightly, try to view the bigger picture, and Cold In July simply falls to bits. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn if it was all shot in sequence because to be honest it feels as though someone made this all up as they went along. There’re no arcs to speak of because nothing from the beginning of the film really matters at the end. Logic doesn’t seem to apply to the picture. Vinessa Shaw’s Ann is cast aside as soon as the story allows her to be, as are several other seemingly-important characters and situations. And for what? What was this film about? What is it for?
I keep thinking about the title, which is never referenced within the movie save for when it appears in the opening credits. What does it mean? What does it refer to? Is the film set in July? In the end it sounds like one of those miscellaneous and meaningless titles given to generic crime stories because they contain no salient points of originality from which to pluck a name. So yeah, Cold In July. Go with that. A reason? Like everything else here, just because.