In the never-ending search for critical adoration and separating moviegoers from their hard-earned dollars, filmmakers seem to embrace the theory that “more IS more.” They try to cram 10 pounds of “stuff” into every two-pound bag to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. That’s to be expected with the blockbuster films, but it sometimes works its way into the smaller, low-key titles as well.
Such is the case with Cold in July. Directed and co-written by Jim Mickle, he has the style down pat. You might call in Tex-Mex Neo-Noir, even though it was shot in New York State. Unfortunately, to paraphrase an old Certs commercial, “it’s three…three… three movies in one.”
In the first third, an average guy in a small town in Texas in 1979 shoots an intruder who has entered his home in the middle of the night. He’s troubled by what he’s done, but becomes even more troubled when he discovers his victim has a recently paroled father who wants some payback. So far, so good. The average guy is played by Michael C. Hall, who gained fame from his work in the Showtime series Dexter. The single-minded father is yet another great performance from playwright and actor Sam Shepherd. The suspense in this first third is of the same variety as you find in Cape Fear, the original 1962 version, and Wait Until Dark. In fact, you can almost feel the knot in Hall’s stomach as he goes through his ordeal.
Then out of the blue, circumstances change and we’re off on a completely different track. Not necessarily bad, just unexpected. This is where, instead of actual “comic relief” we are treated to “character actor relief” with another freewheeling, scene-stealing performance by Don Johnson. He’s getting better as he gets older, and here he plays a flamboyant private investigator from Houston who drives a red Cadillac convertible with a vanity license plate you’d never see in Ohio.
But then in the third act, there’s another change-up, and the film goes over the edge in an over the top effort to do a mash-up of The Wild Bunch, Taxi Driver, and Blood Simple. If you have an aversion to lots of splattering blood, you won’t like this movie.
Other film buff references can be attributed to the films of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and John Carpenter. Some of the music actually echoes Carpenter’s famous Halloween theme. There’s a scene in a Tex-Mex restaurant and bar in which the field next door houses a makeshift drive-in theatre. On that screen: Night of the Living Dead.
I’m not saying Mickle has made a bad film. It’s just unfocused, and well, “overstuffed.” The performances from the three leads are well worth seeing. The film noir approach works. The film quotes, while appreciated, are way too many. Here’s hoping that in his next outing, Jim Mickle goes for more originality. He certainly seems to be capable of it.