The inciting incident of Cold in July plays out in just a few carefully edited, flat, almost perfunctory minutes—with so many incidents to come, this one’s best gotten out of the way as efficiently as possible. Richard (Dexter‘s Michael C Hall) and Ann Dane (Two Lovers‘ Vinessa Shaw) are woken in the wee hours by the sound of someone in the house. Richard nervously, but quietly, loads his father’s old revolver. Richard finds a strange man looting his living room. The man is not armed. But this is a tense moment, there’s a sudden scare, a slip of the finger and suddenly a great deal of what was once inside the strange man is now splattered on the Danes’ wall, sofa, art and knick-knacks. The police come and assure Richard that he has nothing to worry about. He killed in self-defence. We’re in east Texas. There is the sense that in these parts this sort of killing, accident or not, is not only permitted but encouraged. A man’s home is his castle, and this man, Richard, the mousy, moustached, mulleted, station-wagon-piloting proprietor of a framing store, was merely doing what men do. Men kill other men.
Men kill, or at least try to kill, other men quite a lot in Cold in July, which was cleanly directed by Jim Mickle (Stake Land) and is based on a Joe Lansdale novel written in 1989, the year in which this film is set, a peak-year for precisely the sort of regional, twisty neo-noir that this film invokes. What could have been a unique event in Richard’s life winds up setting off a chain of ever-stranger and bloodier events. He’s soon visited by Russel (Sam Shepard, who makes menace seem so easy), the ex-con father of the man Richard killed. Russel starts threatening Richard’s own son—this is a story concerned with the uneasy responsibilities a man assumes when he has a son. Then comes a telling scene in which Richard and Ann and their boy come home to find the front door ajar, its lock busted. Richard demands that Ann immediately take the boy and get away, while timid Richard, instead of joining them, takes a tire iron from the car’s trunk and, heart racing, enters the infiltrated house. What the hell is he thinking? Cold in July is a wisely cagey film, so we can only speculate, but the feeling one gets as the film goes along is that the spilling of blood creates a hunger for more blood. Even Richard can’t help but instinctively seek more of it, now that he’s had a taste.
So much cinema is grounded in the vicarious pleasure we take in watching the hero commit justifiable homicide. As Cold in July goes on its way, moving through crime-film tropes and horror tropes and finally becoming something akin to a western, an unlikely alliance is forged between Richard and Russel and, eventually, a cowboy dandy pig-farmer private dick (Don Johnson, who’s terrific) and welcome mediator for our two gruff, po-faced dads. Each of these men, or rather, their behaviour, attests to the implication that all men are, under the right circumstances, capable of heinous things. What separates our heroes from the bad guys are levels of heinousness or their rationales behind their acts of violence. Cold in July would make a pretty good double-bill with Kill List. The film goes through so many radical narrative shifts it almost seems like a dream—and Lansdale claims the novel was actually based on a dream. It’s a morally complicated, not entirely buyable, immaculately acted, independent genre work that premièred at Sundance, failed to hit Canadian screens, but is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Mongrel and well worth checking out. V