Title: Cold In July
Director: Jim Mickle
Major Players: Michael C Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson
Out Of Five: 3
American indie noir thrillers seem to be the in thing this year. No 3-D, no CGI, just brooding, blood soaked tales of murder and revenge, usually set in the sweaty south. Last month, we had Jeremy Saulnier’s debut feature Blue Ruin (https://fredacooper.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/sundance-london-first-looks-blue-ruin/). Now it’s the turn of the more experienced Jim Mickle with Cold In July, screened over the weekend at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and opening around the UK at the end of this week.
Richard (Michael C Hall) is a quiet unassuming family man who finds himself face to face with a burglar one sultry night. He kills him, more by accident than deliberation: the police treat it as self-defence and suddenly he’s a local hero. But things start to unravel. Stalked by the victim’s father, Ben (Sam Shepard), Richard starts to realise that the man he shot isn’t who he thought he was, a flamboyant private detective is called in and the unlikely trio set out to find Ben’s real son.
A straightforward plot? Definitely not, although it starts that way and initially looks like being not much more than a revenge thriller and probably a good one, with Shepard’s grizzly old coot in pursuit of his nervous prey. But an old ‘wanted’ poster starts to give Richard doubts about the identity of his victim and, from there, the twists and turns come thick and fast.
While it’s not difficult to keep up with the zig-zagging plot, the trouble is that corners are cut and they leave some gaping holes. Here’s one. Richard is convinced that the guy on the poster isn’t the person he shot. But how does he know? The burglar was wearing a mask and he never saw his face. There are more, as we delve into shadowy, even unsavoury, areas like police corruption and, worse still, snuff movies.
It’s a twist and turn too far. The audience suspends its disbelief about half way through the film simply to stay with it, but there comes a point where they simply can’t suspend it any more and find themselves wondering why Richard goes along on the hunt for Ben’s son. His involvement by this stage is over but still he hangs on, despite looking like he doesn’t know what he’s doing there. He’s not the only one.
Good actor though he is, Michael C Hall wears that expression for most of the second half of the film. Admittedly, his character is a fish out of water and he’s simply there because of a slippery, sweaty trigger finger, but there are times when he is little more than a bystander and behaves in a way that just isn’t consistent with his character.
Thankfully, Sam Shepard is as worth watching as ever as the grizzled, mean old Ben, a man of few words with the most sinister smile going. But he’s overshadowed by a star turn from Don Johnson as Jim Bob, a private investigator in a gaudy Texan shirt and boots, white stetson and bright red convertible with loud upholstery. Tasteful he ain’t, but things really look up when he arrives on screen, with his ol’ boy charm disguising a rat-trap brain. Best – and most unexpected – of all, he’s a pig farmer on the side. Even private detectives have to pay the bills. Johnson looks like he’s having a ball in the role and he and Shepard make a good and convincing team: there’s a real sense of them having seen too much life together.
All is not what it seems with Cold In July. The initial shooting turns out to have killed somebody else, the film is something other than the revenge thriller it appeared to be, the police aren’t what they should be and even Ben isn’t quite as bad as he seems, although he’s undeniably nasty. All those deceptions and changes of direction mean that, while the tension is definitely there, it doesn’t ramp up in the way it should as the film approaches its inevitably bloody conclusion. And that means the film isn’t all it could have been either.
Cold In July is released in cinemas around the UK on Friday, 27 June.