Jim Mickle’s Cold in July is a twisty, Southern-fried crime film that seems to have flown just under the radar. It’s based on an early novel by Joe R. Lansdale, and if you watched this and Bubba-Ho-Tep back-to-back, you’d get a sharp appreciation for how Lansdale can dig into his Texas settings and favorite themes and come up with either surprisingly touching gonzo horror-comedy or pitch-black noir. Both movies unmistakably stem from his stories and his imagination, but it’s a broad imagination.
Cold in July starts out by lulling you into a false sense of familiarity. Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall), a low-key family man, finds an intruder in his home in the middle of the night; armed, startled, and unprepared, Richard accidentally shoots and kills him. He’s shaken up by it, but it shouldn’t, everyone says, result in any trouble. The cops ID the dead man as fugitive Freddy Russell. And that would be the end of it if it weren’t for two things. The first, though a hiccup in the moment, is the twist we’re prepared for: revenge. Freddy’s estranged father, Ben–a steely, world-weary, and terrifying Sam Shepard–appears on the scene, and he wants to make Richard pay for shooting his son. He’s a violent man, and he’s not afraid to threaten Richard’s family and hang around the edges of his life, implying coming catastrophes in a way that are too vague for the cops to act on. You’ve seen Cape Fear. The performances are decidedly different, but the setup is the same.
Except Richard sees Freddy Russell’s wanted poster, and he knows that that’s not the man he shot. The cops try to convince him his memory’s playing tricks on him, but he can’t get rid of the feeling that all this is wrong … and when Ben Russell appears and starts turning the screws, Richard finds he needs to chase his “faulty” memory. If the man he killed wasn’t Ben’s son after all, Richard and his family will be safe.
This is much less familiar than the first setup, and it’s where we really settle in for the ride. The movie is at its best when it gets to the tense, strange partnership that forms between Richard, Ben, and Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson), a colorful but hard-edged PI. Hall is fine, but his more muted role is less interesting than Shepard’s and Johnson’s, and both those actors, given excellent, chewy material, turn in memorable performances. Johnson may steal the movie, but Shepard gets its best and most unforgettable line.
The film is gritty, violent–sometimes even brutal–and compelling, and it’s enhanced by its scenery, simplicity, and specificity. Streaming should allow it to slowly pick up the cult following it deserves.
Cold in July is streaming on Tubi and Pluto TV.