Got the Wrong Guy: ‘Cold in July’ Is a Twisted Tale of Right and Wrong

Sam Shepard, Michael C. Hall and Don Johnson, from left, in Cold in July.
Sam Shepard, Michael C. Hall and Don Johnson, from left, in Cold in July.

Jim Mickle’s twisted mind is responsible for such low-budget flicks as Mulberry St, Stake Land and We Are What We Are—dark, bloody and occasionally playful movies that vacillate between camp and serious drama. Mr. Mickle’s latest, Cold in July, a thriller with film noir accents, is a more subdued affair than his previous works and may expand his reach to those put off by mutant rats and cannibal families. 

Cold in July ★★
(3/4 stars)

Written by: Nick Damici and Jim Mickle
Directed by:
Jim Mickle
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson and Sam Shepard
Running time: 109 min.

Still, it has a seedy underbelly that will appeal to hard-core Mickle fans; it’s more deranged than it initially seems. Loosely based on Joe R. Lansdale’s hardboiled 1989 novel of the same name, Cold in July jumps right into the action and then slows down for the bulk of the story, building up to an eleventh-hour climax. Set in East Texas in the late ‘80s, it begins when Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall, fresh from Showtime’s Dexter) accidentally shoots and kills a burglar sneaking through his home in the middle of the night. Dane, as he is referred to throughout the movie, is a modest man with a wife (Vinessa Shaw) and son, which is where his problems begin.

The town sheriff (Nick Damici, who co-wrote the script with Mr. Mickle) tells Dane the man he shot was a wanted felon, which is peachy. (Score one for the good guy!) There’s just one caveat: The burglar’s father, Ben Russel (Sam Shepard, gritty and good), is released from prison on parole, and he wants revenge. It turns out, though, that the sheriff was lying to cover something up. The man Dane killed wasn’t Russel’s son, so they team up in search of the truth, joined by Don Johnson, who enters the picture about halfway through as a kind of cowboy private investigator with a quick mind and fast draw.

What Dane and his compatriots uncover is very dark. In one scene late in the film, Dane puts a bullet through another man’s skull, and the screen turns red. I thought at first that Mr. Mickle was playing with color saturation, but I was wrong; the light above Dane is, horrifyingly, splattered with blood, an expertly natural way to achieve this effect.

In a reissued edition of his novel, Mr. Lansdale describes Cold in July as “a kind of period piece.” And that is, to a certain extent, also true of the film. Tense, synth-y music by Jeff Grace harkens back to a predigital era, as do Dane’s mullet and mustache. Many elements, though, feel mixed and matched. The Mercury station wagon Dane drives looks as if it could have emerged from the early 1970s, and the film may bring to mind recent Western-tinged endeavors like David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men.

Mr. Lansdale’s book is talky—driven primarily by dialogue, told from Dane’s perspective. In Mr. Mickle’s quieter adaptation, some key details are left out, which may come as a disappointment to the viewer looking for a clearer narrative path. Still, Cold in July is Mr. Mickle’s best film to date. Turning his refreshingly demented directorial eye to a more conventional format, he has produced a nuanced gun-slinging adventure about honor, manliness, fatherhood and corruption. It’s about making your own system of morality, even if that means breaking the law.

Got the Wrong Guy: ‘Cold in July’ Is a Twisted Tale of Right and Wrong