Review of Cold in July, Directed by Jim Mickle
On a summer night in 1989, Richard Dane (Michael Hall) and his wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) find themsleves wakened by the sound of a burglar. Richard goes to investigate, gun in hand, and kills a man who the police later say is Freddy Russell. Cold in July is a nicely packaged thriller which goes in a completely unexpected direction. Freddy Russell’s father, Ben (Sam Shephard), recently released on parole, finds his way to the small East Texas town to find his son’s killer. But we later learn that Richard is involved in a much larger, far flung plot than he anticipated.
The movie is as much a thriller as a time era piece. The cars, the soundtrack, and the clothing all bespeak a bygone time without cellphones and oldfashioned gunslinging–a staple in any telling of Texas mythology in the American imagination. The first 30 minutes of Cold in July are unstoppable, keeping viewers glued to the screen as the police use the Dane family as bait to draw Ben out. The showdown occurs in the throes of a deafening rainstorm at the police-surrounding Dane household. Ben shows his face and the ensuing hunt, which takes place offscreen, successfully captures him.
What’s left to say? The case seems closed, but Richard notices a wanted advertisement for Freddy Russell in the police station and the man looks nothing like the burglar he killed in his living room nights before. Things become even stranger when he sees police haul Ben into a car, under the cover of darkness, only to tranquilize Ben and place him on the tracks in front of an ongoing train.
Richard makes a last minute decision to save Ben. In many ways, this is Richard’s conversionary experience, where he decides that he is going to pursue this story to its end. Richard is a small-business owner specializing in framing thrown into a violent world whose thrills have entangled him. Ben and Richard, joined by Ben’s fellow Korean War veteran Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson), search for the real Freddy in hopes of saving him from the dixie mob he’s become involved with. But what they find is that Feddy may not be worth saving.
Richard’s own story takes a backseat as Ben takes center stage. In some ways Richard serves the purpose of a foil character. Richard wants to be like Ben and Jim, these specimens of gruff Texas. This mentorship relationship lies beneath the surface as Richard sits awkwardly between the two matured killers in a pickkup truck or stands idly by as Ben twists the arm (literally) of one of Richard’s annoying acquaintances. Before the climax of the film, Richard goes home to his wife and child to resume a normal life, only to decide in the middle of the night to rejoin Ben and Jim.
When the trio discover the heinous activities that Freddy is involved in, his father, who weeks ago was seeking revenge on his behalf, decides that Freddy deserves the bullet. Ben vividly compares Freddy to a dog–if a dog bites someone, the master has two options, either “chain it up” or “put it down.” The responsibility of the father for the son takes on a proportion that sits uncomfortably with the audience. The father-son relationship in Cold in July rubs against our notion of family, where blood runs thickest.
While these Ben and Richard’s storylines at face value do not jive together, the director Jim Mickle does an admirable job of welding them together into a fast-paced film with a proper balance of grave considerations and at times surprising humor. Audiences are in all likelihood more like Richard than either Ben or Jim, leading them to use Richard as a vehicle to observe rough justice in the making. Rough justice is the hallmark of films featuring vigilantism and Cold in July is no different.
The aesthetics play a significant role in pulling off Cold in July–a retro synethesizer music score that propels the film forward and richly colored underlit scenes. The edgy quality of the entire movie comprises a big chunk of its appeal. Justice served cold adds the smooth finishing touches to this cinematic take on an ordinary man learning the ways of Texan masculinity.