Set in the late 1980s, Cold in July starts with a masterfully directed scene, in which father and husband Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) accidentally kills an intruder in his living room. Richard has the cops on his side and faces no charges, but soon enough the dead man’s father (Sam Shepard) comes to town seeking to avenge his son.
Although the film starts in straightforward fashion and director Jim Mickle demonstrates clear abilities in economic direction, it gradually becomes apparent that Cold in July is not your average thriller but a camp bomb primed to explode. From the cinematography and cheesy electronic music to Michael C. Hall’s ridiculous moustache, the movie cleverly undermines itself, and the audience is not sure whether they should invest in the story or burst into nervous laughter.
For a time, Jim Mickle walks the fine line between the two modes more or less successfully, but the narrative detours betray him and reveal the film’s true colours. Somewhere after the halfway mark, it becomes clear that Cold in July is more of an 80s Carpenter homage than a stand-alone film with a coherent plotline. What begins as a gripping psychological thriller develops into a buddy movie and ends with an absurd bloodbath. In the course of the story, Richard goes from being the clear protagonist to a mere helping hand in the final scenes, and it’s Sam Shepard who takes the reins as the narrative’s most important character. The plot’s various twists and turns feel forced and unreasonable, and so do the characters’ motives. The second act’s slow pace doesn’t help, and despite its strong start, Cold in July soon becomes boring. Sam Shepard and Don Johnson (playing a silly, Tarantinian cowboy/detective) do a decent job and seem to enjoy themselves when the movie slips into buddy-movie territory, while Michael C. Hall’s unsure performance mirrors the fact that his character doesn’t have a goal to pursue after the middle of the film.
Even at their most outlandish, the Carpenter movies that are such a strong influence on Cold in July retained gripping plotlines and clear protagonists. By denying us either, Mickle makes it very difficult to care about his film. The continuous shift in styles, protagonists and storylines becomes tiresome after a while; the audience has nothing to grab onto, and there isn’t much of an emotional or intellectual point being made by these constant changes, apart from the message that Mickle likes to stuff as many different influences and genres as possible into a single film.
Cold in July works pretty well as a goofy commentary on other films and genres and it’s funny enough to be an amusing, rather than an annoying, failure. Judged on its own, however, the film is slow-paced, uneven and shallow. The effort might have been admirable but the film is plainly forgettable.
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