Sunday, 20 July 2014

Cold in July (2014, US)

It all started one cold night in July

Director Jim Mickle pulls off a tense, somewhat intricate thriller with good performances from most of the cast. What stops it from being great is the sheer number of plots left half treated, off-kilter shifts in tone and the weak final act.


Have you ever thought you’d like to see a film with Sam Shephard, Don Johnson and Michael C Hall? Me too, and it’s a veritable feast of sweaty neo-noir Texicana. This film somewhat reminded me of William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, minus the sense of humour (Killer Joe: “I mean, all she did was suck his cock and try and steal your money. It could have been worse”). Like Killer Joe, Cold in July explores a seedy underside of non-descript towns, but instead of trailer parks, the action takes place in car parks, desert roads and urban porn dungeons (try saying that during aperitifs in a trendy city bar). It's a hoot.

Genre: Thriller | Director: Jim Mickle | WritersJim Mickle & Nick Damici ActorsMichael C. Hall, Sam Shepard & Don Johnson | CinematographerRyan Simul StudioBBSM Studio, Belladonna Production, Backup Media, Paradise City & IFC Films ProducersLinda Moran, Rene Bastian, Adam Folk & Marie Savare.

One sentence description: Sweaty neo-noir Texicana.
One (long) sentence review: A meandering but enjoyable thriller with just the right amount of seediness
Watch it if…You like neo-noir thrillers, or like "Farm & Feed" magazine.
Don’t watch it if…You prefer films to close off all narrative threads they start. 
Best thing about the film…MC Hall's moustache.

The story
The film starts with a nice lower-middle-class home that is subject to a home invasion. Michael C Hall’s character (“Richard Dane”) fetches a gun and confronts the intruder, who appears unarmed. However, Richard is startled by a sound and accidentally shoots the intruder smack bang in the head. This being Texas, he’s fully exonerated and the Police shut the book on the intruder, who is fingered as an undesirable. However, then two things happen: the intruder’s father starts threatening Richard and his family and Richard realises that the Police are using Richard’s shooting of the intruder to cover up an imbroglio with a drugs case informant. So Richard then goes on a shocking journey to discover the truth.
The Review
You’d think this was a classic recipe for an everyman vs. corrupt institutions thriller, except the film is like a hazy, errant dream, made up of Don Johnson being fabulous in a red convertible, Michael C Hall vacillating from confusion to resoluteness and Sam Shephard just being grizzly. What is indisputable though is that this is a film about men. The film says to us – here’s Texas in 1989, when men were men. Look, here’s Michael C Hall shooting somebody in the face – because every man is capable of searing violence. Look - real men are taking care of business, killing the porn/death-merchants and saving the girl.
The film starts off buzzing with energy and in no time sets out a menu of themes: a man’s right to use deadly force in protecting his home, a working family trying to pay the bills, gun control, corruption in the Police and much more. Then like Johnson’s red Dodge, it suddenly careers off into a completely different story and all the prior threads are dropped dead. The two topics for its climax? The relationship between fathers and sons and the snuff movie industry.
However, the film doesn’t really explore this fully since Shephard’s character unceremoniously shoots his son in the head without hearing his side of the story (although as a mentalist snuff filmmaker, I’m not sure how nuanced the son’s side would’ve been).

What is interesting is the parallels with Richard’s situation: Richard shoots the intruder using his father’s gun, his father providing the cue for how a man is supposed to protect his home. And yet, Richard is later horrified to see his own son waving a toy gun around in a childish attempt to ape him, labouring under the illusion that Richard had acted as a hero. It seems to illustrate that we are often pale imitations of our parents in our early years, until we understand why and how they did what they did.
The film has an otherworldly quality whereby it skips from genre to genre with nary a seam in sight. This sometimes causes unexpected shifts in tone - we go from Shephard and Hall's quiet delivery to the revved up overconfidence of Johnson in literally 2 frames. Once Don Johnson shows up from another movie in a red convertible, we suddenly find our selves in some sort of conspiratorial murder mystery. 
[It is occasionally pointed out that while actors are filming, it’s not always clear what kind of film they’re in and it’s only afterwards that they realise the genre of the film they acted in. Case in point was the mother in Carrie (1976), Piper Laurie, who felt her role was so cartoonish that the film could only be a comedy ( And so I wonder if Don Johnson knew what film he was acting in, because his performance is initially so out of place that he really feels like he came off the set of some feisty Southern comedy instead of a neo-noir.]

None of this is to say that Cold in July is not an enjoyable film, however – the noirish elements are genuinely tense, the suspense is well executed and facts are revealed with a confident hand. We’re made to sympathise with Richard, despite the fact that he is, ultimately, a killer, and seems to ignore his entire family for most of the film.  [By the way, did you enjoy the shot of Hall reading "Farm & Feed" in bed? No wonder chasing down murders proved more interesting.] The final 20mins see the film descend into some sort of action pastiche, with all the careful set-up abandoned for kinetic siege scenes. The setting in 1989 reminds us again of what life was like pre-mobiles and pre-internet - today, there would be no physical video store to find the bad guys in.
Truth be told, I thought it was going to be one of those Texan films where a bunch of tired, damaged men hang around deserts shooting stuff, enjoying their freedom and generally being all-American. It turned out to be a different animal, one with a certain charm to it.

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