Cold in July (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Ann (Vinessa Shaw) and Richard (Michael C. Hall) are jolted from their sleep when they hear noises in the living room. The husband goes to fetch the revolver and and puts bullets inside the chamber, hands shaking. He makes his way down the dark hall slowly and comes face-to-face with the masked intruder. The clock chimes; the trigger is pulled. Brain is splattered against the wall. The police arrive at the house. According to the lead investigator (Nick Damici), the boy’s name was Freddy Russell.
“Cold in July,” directed by Jim Mickle, is a thriller that shows its fangs but one that lacks a powerful bite. Although it is put together well technically, the dramatic pull is only partly there, the performances by the lead and supporting actors keeping an otherwise limp characterization afloat. Based on the novel by James R. Lansdale, the elements are there to create a suspenseful thriller from beginning to end, but the strands do not quite come together in a way that is particularly cathartic or memorable.
The first third is executed well. We are led to believe that it is going to be a home invasion movie in which a man named Ben, recently released from prison (Sam Shepard) and who just so happens to be Freddy’s father, will make Richard and his family’s life unbearable. Although the first half hour does not provide anything new to the genre, it is creepy and disturbing nonetheless because the material treats its subjects like real human beings simply responding to scary situations.
But the picture gets real interesting when Ben and Richard are given a chance to talk to one another. Because of the way the movie is set up, we expect is a cat-and-mouse game until the end with scenes that involve the two men duking it out. That does not happen. Instead, the screenplay goes on a more interesting direction. It underscores that actions do have repercussions even if such actions are executed for self-defense. Hall is a good choice to play Richard because he can communicate inner guilt and a willingness, at times desperation, to protect something at all cost.
Some of the characters require more details to have a truly compelling final third. Richard’s wife does not do much other than look worried and terrified. We get a bit of her personality in the beginning but she is essentially not there during the latter half. She needed to have been written smarter and more sensitive to her husband’s whereabouts. Another character worth getting to know is Jim Bob (Don Johnson), a farmer-private investigator. He provides comic release in an otherwise dour material.
Based on the screenplay by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, although not an ace mystery-thriller because it leaves off interesting plot lines when convenient and does not answer the more interesting questions, “Cold in July,” with some reservations, is still worth seeing for its neat surprises. In some ways, it is a neat nudge to early Coen brothers thriller pictures.