In one of my treasured yearly rituals, I feign relevance by writing something tangentially related to the Cannes Film Festival, which I have yet to attend. This year I make the bold move of reviewing a feature currently screening at the ongoing Cannes fest, Jim Mickle’s grizzled revenge movie, Cold in July. Opening this Friday in theaters and on VOD from IFC Films, it’s an unrepentant scuzz-fest, from Michael C. Hall’s matted-down mullet to the saturated neon that turns all of East Texas into a Red Light District. It is the fourth film from Jim Mickle (director/co-writer) and Nick Damici (actor/co-writer), two historically-minded genre aficionados who treat their lowdown material with respect and ingenuity.
Their resourceful debut was Mulberry St (2006), which took a Lower East Side apartment, a few rats, and fewer dollars, and turned them into a taut locked-room zombie attack movie. With the help of producer Larry Fessenden they expanded their world in Stake Land (2010) a post-apocalyptic vampire Western, which proved their penchant for genre mash-ups and slow-burn scares (my wife bailed during the opening scene, she was so frightened – and she’s a horror author). In We are What We Are (2013) they remade the 2010 Mexican horror movie of the same name, attempting to sustain a dampened gothic mood for the whole feature.
Mickle and Damici had been trying to make Cold in July since 2006, and planned it as their follow up to Mulberry St. They could not get it off the ground until last year, and one can understand the financiers’ skittishness. This adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s novel is multiple movies in one, moving from slasher scares to neo-noir mystery, then from black comedy to blood-soaked action. Lansdale also penned the novella of Bubba Ho-Tep , a similar pile-up of genres adapted into a movie in 2002 by Don Coscarelli (Phantasm). Though its plot gyrations lead the film down some blind alleys, its overheated visuals never waver, nor do the gruff performances of its leads: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson.
Hall plays Richard Dane, a professional picture framer and mild-mannered milquetoast who accidentally blows a home intruder’s head off with a revolver. The dead thief’s dad Ben Russell (Sam Shepard) starts harassing Dane with malicious intent. In these early sequences Russell is a ghostly psycho, popping up in the edges of frames and the bedroom of Dane’s child like an AARP Michael Myers. The Halloween vibe is cemented by the percussive synth score by Jeff Grace. But then the narrative curlicues start twirling, and Dane and Russell and up in an uneasy truce against a more entrenched evil, with uncertain support from the town sheriff, played with weight and deliberation by Damici. He’s an actor who’s able to sit still and let the film build around him, evident even more in his lead performance in Stake Land. To give away anything more would be cruel, but Don Johnson does show up with similar used-car salesman smarm as his debauched father figure in HBO’s Eastbound and Down.
It is inherently disconnected movie, and it never holds together as a coherent narrative, but the individual pieces are down and dirty fun. In the opening scenes Michael C. Hall blends into the background, his dialogue a tentative muttering, as if he hoped the sound would die away before people could hear it. Dane’s house is a perfect emblem of middle class passivity, as production designer Russell Barnes piles on the flower patterns preferred by his schoolteacher wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw). Russell is silent but malevolently so, emerging as a symbol of Dane’s guilt and inferiority complex. After the plot reconfigures, Dane and Russell end up on the same level, though it’s never convincing how Dane goes from tremulous wilting flower to gun toting angel of death. The only explanation is narrative convenience – and Mickle and Damici had to do a lot of compression to squeeze the proliferation of incidents into a feature-length screenplay. The film fails as a character study, but it has any number of compensatory pleasures, from the atmospheric location shooting to watching Shepard and Johnson hang out enjoying each other’s company. They had reportedly wanted to work together for years, and they ease into the rapport of an old married couple – Shepard the silent repressed husband and Johnson the nagging level-headed wife. Shepard underplays, a reducing his character to a few “hmmphs” and head shakes, a man used to communicating solely through violence, while Johnson continues his bloviating Southern ham routine that he’s honed in Django Unchained and Eastbound and Down. Their sniping and smirking is downright adorable and Mickle lets it play out in the blackly comic middle sections.
After the monotone gray-blue of We Are What We Are, Mickle and crew really embrace the ripe pulp plot with succulent colors to match. It’s a film of saturated neons, seemingly lit by stop and brake light, a melange of rich reds/yellows/greens and an occasional comic-book royal blue emanating as moonlight. Mickle and DP Ryan Samul bathe the final shootout in sickly yellows that turn red after blood hits the ceiling, indicating the battle is soon to come to a close.