Review: Cold in July

Cold in July is an utterly unpredictable, stylish Southern thriller, set (as we are told early on) in East Texas, circa 1989. Careening through schizophrenic tonal shifts, it is both irredeemably patchy and compulsively watchable. With production values of subtly accurate 1980's detail, from the prickly electronic score to the dated kitchenware, Jim Mickle's thriller just about hangs together on the strength of its disparate parts.

Richard (a mustachioed Michael C. Hall) is an unsuspecting homeowner with a nervous trigger finger, who shoots and kills a purported burglar late one summer evening. This sets a series of retaliatory acts into motion, and Richard's family is soon the target for the dead criminal's vindictive father. With an ominous, restrained first act, the 'threatened family' trope plays out accordingly, right up until we see that the police might be hiding important details. That's when it turns tail and becomes something else entirely. Bathed in garish neon light, the film takes on a noirish element as the camera bounces after moving tailgates and tracks around dingy local haunts. Mickle shifts focus constantly, making use of many preening depth of field shots - often with waning cogency behind them.

From this point forward, there are paroxysms of genre-bending; when Don Johnson's tacky private investigator-cum-cowboy drives his shiny red car onto the scene, the film takes on a weirdly farcical spirit. Johnson's turn as Jim Bob (yeah, Jim Bob) sees previous moodiness partially abandoned for moments of surreal humour. This aggressive tone-shifting can be compelling in its novelty, but is, at times, borderline incoherent. The film so determinedly sheds its skin that it tends to leave a lot of confusion in its wake.

The conclusion, a climactic act of violence, has some semblance of a gritty action setpiece. This is where things get strange, and perhaps not in a good way. Central to the latter stages of the story are the appearance of some shocking VHS tapes, Tarantino-esque levels of blood spatters, and a surprisingly low-key approach to all this insanity.

Michael C. Hall's stiff, enervated performance -  a family man bored by the banality of his life -  can easily be mistaken for wooden, but it's the type of physicality the role calls for. He is a man clearly awed by the bombastic macho behaviour and criminal intrigue that he is ensnared in; he courts it beyond any necessity. This callow interest in tough-guy posturing offers some nuance to Cold in July, and its ambiance of cold creeps generally keeps one guessing. In this way, it's a fine bit of entertainment -- but a negligible entry in the referential Southern crime genre.


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