The last time I watched a film that inspired me to say, “I have to see everything that this director does,” it was Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Before that it was Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and before that Martin Scorsese’s Good Fellas. Does Jim Mickle’s Cold in July belong in the same conversation as those modern classics? Time will tell, but I know that I’m going back and watching all of Mickle’s previous films, Mulberry Street (2006), Stakeland (2010) and We Are What We Are (2013).
Cold in July is based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale and was adapted for the screen by Mickle and his writing partner, Nick Damici (who has appeared in Mickle’s first three films and has an important supporting role in this one). Set in 1989, Michael C. Hall (Showtime’s Dexter) stars as Richard, a small town picture framer whose house is broken into during the opening frames. While his young son sleeps in another room, and his wife (Vinessa Shaw) waits nervously in their bed, Richard load a revolver, his hands shaking, to protect his family and confront he intruder in their living room. Standing before the robber, a clock chimes, startling Richard, and he accidentally puts a bullet through the other man’s skull.
Richard is hailed a hero, but he just wants life to return to normal. Unfortunately, the man he killed is a hood named Freddy, and Freddy’s old man, an ex-con named Ben (played by the great Sam Shepard) wants revenge for his kid’s death. As Richard pushes the local police for more protection for his family, he makes a startling discovery: the man he shot may not have been Freddy.
This turn of events leads Richard down a dark road of corruption, violence and terror. He realizes that those paid to serve and protect may not have his family’s well-being in mind, and the people who should be his enemies are the only ones he can rely on. When Don Johnson’s badass pig farmer, Jim Bob, shows up halfway through the film, Cold in July changes tone and becomes an entirely different film. It’s a remarkable shift, but done so smoothly, you don’t see it coming.
Cold in July begins as a psychological thriller with such great suspense I was pacing the room as the screws tightened. When the film takes its turn, the interaction between the three leads brings out an element of black humor that doesn’t exist in the first 45 minutes. Mickle shows great skill in directing his prestige actors. Hall, Shepard and Johnson each have their own unique style, yet their performances are all cohesive and they never seem to be appearing in a different film. Mickle also has a great visual sense that captures the many moods and twists in this film. Working with Director of Photography Ryan Samul, the two devised a riveting look for Cold in July. The music by Jeff Grace is also exceptional, paying homage to John Carpenter’s great, minimalist scores.
As I complete this review, another filmmaker comes to mind: Rian Johnson. The director of Brick, The Brothers Bloom and Looper cut a path for himself by writing and directing ambitious films that mashed up genres and were wholly original in their storytelling and execution. Johnson is currently in preproduction on one of the next Star Wars movies and film geeks are giddy with anticipation about what he’ll bring to the beloved franchise. Mickle’s career trajectory reminds me of Johnson’s and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s at least offered some big budget blockbuster in the near future. Mickle is certainly proving to be a visionary and whatever he does next, whether it’s another indie (hopefully with a bigger budget) or perhaps some summer tent pole (better yet, HBO should hire him for True Detective) this guy is a true talent and one whose next move has me waiting in anticipation.
Cold in July is released by IFC films. The Blu-ray features include feature length commentary with the cast and crew, deleted scenes, early visualization test, and Jeff Grace’s score on an isolated track.