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There are some strange tonal shifts in Indie director Jim Mickle’s Cold in July. Whether they were in the source novel by Joe R. Lansdale I couldn’t say. But a good cast of strong personalities saves the movie from itself.

Pulling Strings

Shepard and Johnson liven up the proceedings
Shepard and Johnson liven up the proceedings

Cold in July opens on a scene that could be the climax in another film. Richard (Michael C. Hall), fearing for his wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) and young son Jordan (Brogan Hall), gets up to investigate a burglar in his house. This is Texas in the 1980s, so Richard has a handgun nearby. I can’t say whether the production design is authentic, but between cars, hair, and furnishings, it feels coherent.

There’s a quick, tense, scene and before you know it Richard and Ann are washing the blood stains off their walls where Richard shot the burglar. A quick investigation clears Richard of any wrongdoing.

But this is the beginning, not the end. There are several emotionally charged scenes of the family decompressing. Mickle is very good at pulling your strings. He uses music, surprise, and expressive framing. The day after the burglary Richard’s son Jordan surprises his daddy pointing a finger and shouting “bang!” Several times Mickle uses split diopter shots to reveal multiple layers of information at once. For example there’s a shot of the family in the background, with the blood-stained painting out on the curb with the trash in the foreground.

When Richard goes to watch the burglar’s burial, Mickle surprises us with the sudden appearance of a menacing Sam Shepard, playing the burglar’s father. Jeff Grace’s score helps you understand when you’re supposed to be surprised.

Mickle’s string-pulling is a little obvious and heavyhanded for my tastes, but I’ll admit it’s effective.

Shifts and Twists

After Shepard’s surprise appearance and not-so-veiled threats against the family, you understand this is going to be a stalker movie. You now predict the new direction and outcome, and you resign yourself to a long slog to the end, hoping Mickle’s string-pulling will be enough to entertain you for another hour.

But after another fifteen minutes, there’s another change in direction and another surprise addition to the cast — Don Johnson making a grand entrance and stealing all of his scenes with the help of some loud cowboy western shirts.

Before long there’s something called the “Dixie Mafia” and a subplot gratuitously involving torture porn. You may not long for the predictability of the mere stalker movie because at least this mess is more interesting. But I wouldn’t have minded a little more focus and continuity.

A plot twist or two can be an exciting way for the audience to play with the director. But too many twists, or ones that swing too far make it seem like the director is trying too hard to outsmart the audience. At some point the audience can’t hope to stay in the game, and there’s nothing left to do but sit and wait for the director to finish. And what fun is that?

An Interesting Mess

Cold in July eventually settles in on a satisfying story, ending with a nice bit of dramatic irony. It doesn’t quite answer all the questions that it raised. “A mess” is a good way to describe the proceedings. Yet Johnson’s flair and Shepard’s menace make a good combination. Hall’s innocence and ignorance make him a good surrogate for the audience.

I wouldn’t recommend Cold in July very enthusiastically. But considering the film I expected after fifteen minutes, it proved to be a pleasant surprise.