[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Cold in July opens today in limited release.]
Genre is a lifeline. We cling to it in order to guide our expectations of a film, and while genres can be blended, we expect them to remain consistent. But just because a clearly stated genre is conventional, that doesn’t mean it’s unshakable. Jim Mickle’s Cold in July pulls its audience into one tone, and then explodes it over halfway through the picture only to blow it up yet again. It can be categorized as a “crime” film, but that doesn’t really do it justice as Mickle constantly shakes up the tone to where the picture can be jarring and schizophrenic. But this approach also makes Cold in July thrillingly unpredictable.
Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) and his wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) awaken in the middle of the night to the sound of a home intruder, and a panicked Richard shoots the man dead. It appears to be an open-and-shut case, but the mild-mannered Richard is not only troubled by his actions, but is then threatened by the intruder’s recently paroled father, Ben Russell (Sam Shepard). Once again, it appears to be an open-and-shut case the police can handle, but as the situation unfolds, Richard’s curiosity draws him into a shocking cover-up that is only the beginning of the story’s twists and turns.
For its first hour, Cold in July plays as slow-burn thriller. It’s more concerned with Richard’s fragility. He’s in a constant state of uncertainty from the moment he wakes up to the sound of shattered glass and footsteps. Was he justified in killing a man even if it was by accident? How dangerous is Ben Russell? Do the police know more than they’re letting on? Russell and the audience are left to ponder these moral decisions and the deepening mystery.
Then Don Johnson charges into the picture in a big, red convertible with bullhorns on the grill and a Texas license plate reading “RED BTCH”. It’s like his character, Jim Bob, came from a completely different movie, found his way into Cold in July, and hit it like an earthquake. The tone is completely rearranged, and we’re forced to reevaluate the entire picture in the span of less than two minutes. I’ve never seen a picture intentionally change gears so quickly, and the tone continues to shift until the end.
These mood shifts make the film feel schizophrenic but also intriguing. Mickle’s willingness to thoroughly shake up the tone of his picture goes well with the surprising turns of the screenplay he wrote with Nick Damici. Nevertheless, the film hits these turns so hard that it repeatedly forced me to take a step back and get my bearings. Thankfully, the picture never becomes completely unrecognizable due in part to the solid performances that always keep the characters believable. Everything can spiral completely out of control as long as the characters’ actions are consistent, although I was never completely convinced as to why a family man like Richard would have an insatiable curiosity that could possibly endanger his wife and child. However, with outsized characters like Shepard and especially Jim Bob, an average guy like Richard is essential to keeping this wild movie at least a somewhat grounded.
Cold in July at times feels random, scattershot, and like it’s flying by the seat of its bloodstained pants. As wobbly as this concoction can be, it’s also refreshingly free and confident. Rules of storytelling and filmmaking have their purpose, but sometimes it’s worthwhile to ask “Why not?” By throwing caution to the wind, Mickle may not have a film that fits into a neat, little box, but sometimes it’s better to let the box explode and let the chips fall where they may.