Review: Cold in July

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Cold in July

Joe R. Lansdale is such a prolific and successful author, it's surprising we don't see more of his work on the big screen.

A native Texan, Lansdale has published more than 30 mysteries and crime novels set mostly in the Lone Star State, as well as novellas, comic books, graphic novels and many short stories. But only a few of his works have been adapted for film or TV; the 2002 cult film Bubba Ho-Tep is based on a Lansdale novella, and a handful of his short stories have inspired short films. He's also written a few screenplays.

But if the gripping new thriller Cold in July is the success it deserves to be, we may see a lot more movies based on Lansdale's books and stories. Adapted from Lansdale's novel of the same title, Cold in July is a solid bit of Texas noir, a taught and satisfying crime film that delivers in most ways.

Set in East Texas in 1989, Cold in July opens as small-town frame shop owner Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) finds an intruder in his home and shoots the man, Freddy Russell (Wyatt Russell), to death. When the police assure Dane that his actions were in self defense and no charges will be filed, he and his wife, Ann (Vinessa Shaw) assume that's the end of the matter.

But the shooting rattles Richard, Anne and their young son, Jordan (Brogan Hall). They find it difficult to get on with their lives, especially when the townspeople keep hailing Richard as a hero. Richard also has a creepy encounter with Freddy's father, Ben (Sam Shepard), a recently paroled ex-con who begins stalking the family, seeking revenge for his son's death.

The Danes' lives begin to unravel at this point, and Cold in July delivers so many twists that I can't say more about the plot except in very general terms: Richard, along with hard-boiled private detective Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson), finds himself in caught up in a harrowing story of corruption, secrecy, strange alliances and brutal violence.

Crime film fans will find much to like in Cold in July, a stylish and suitably atmospheric film that hits all the expected noir notes. The story starts darkly and grows darker at every turn; like any good thriller, Cold in July does not celebrate humanity at our best. A few scenes are horrifically repulsive, and effectively so -- you won't soon forget what you've seen or its implications, especially when the violence goes far beyond the genre's usual murder and mayhem.

While Cold in July's story is unpredictable and sometimes clever, it's not unique. It's not quite clichéd, but definitely familiar, and veteran noir watchers will recognize themes, plot devices and even bits of dialogue. Much of the plot is also farfetched; don't watch Cold in July unless you're prepared to suspend a lot of disbelief. But the filmmaking is solid enough to forgive most of the implausibility and lack of originality.

Cold in July excels in the way it tells its story, with fast-paced direction by Jim Mickle (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Nick Damici), relentless suspense, an intriguing exploration of masculinity and terrific character development. The three leads reveal their backstories and true natures in complex and surprising ways; if Cold in July's story isn't original, its characters certainly are.

The film also has excellent acting, especially from Hall, Shepard and Johnson. Hall plays Richard as a sympathetic everyman whose good intentions draw him into a world of trouble; it seems that the more he seeks justice and truth, the more he finds himself in danger. Hall shows great range with his character -- the well-meaning and often helpless Richard is a far cry from Hall's most famous role, the psychopathically self-assured serial killer Dexter Morgan.

Shepard gives his usual faultless performance, playing the film's most complex character with malice and affliction. Ben is at once aggressor and victim, a hardened career criminal with a short fuse who's also a lonely, castoff outsider who wishes his life -- and his son's life -- could have gone a different way.

Johnson is also terrific as the quirky Jim Bob, providing the film's few moments of comic relief. Jim Bob has been at his job too long to suffer fools gladly -- be they friend or foe -- and would just as soon punch someone as settle a disagreement with a handshake. Johnson plays the character with impatient, macho glee; we see shades of his Miami Vice badass days, although Jim Bob looks far more like a wayward, grizzled great-uncle who drinks too much at family reunions than an Eighties celebrity pretty boy.

I have only two major beefs with Cold in July. One is the aforementioned unbelievable plot, which makes the film a good and entertaining movie rather than a great and profound one. The other is that although it is set in East Texas, Cold in July was filmed in ... upstate New York. Non-Texans may not notice the many differences between the Hudson Valley and the Piney Woods, between towns like Woodstock and towns like Huntsville. But any real Texan can tell you that from the trees to the topography to the architecture, the two places don't look much alike. Lots of films are made in East Texas; wouldn't it have been just as easy to shoot Cold in July where it's set? (Probably -- but I suspect tax breaks lured the production to New York.)

Still, Cold in July is a fine example of gritty crime cinema and a film worth seeing for its superb acting and direction. We've waited for decades to see a Lansdale crime novel on screen, and Cold in July is worth the wait.

Austin/Texas connections: Cold in July is set in East Texas. Joe R. Lansdale was born in Gladewater.