Cold in July: Dark doings deep in the heart of Texas

Taking a few pages from the works of Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson and John D. MacDonald, the screen adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s Cold in July may not be for all tastes, but if revenge is a dish best served cold, this entertaining film serves up a Southern-fried film noir with spicy seasoning and tangy flavor.

Michael C. Hall portrays Richard Dane, an average family man who kills a man who broke into his house late one night. What initially appears to be a simple case of self-defense turns out to be anything but, as Richard soon discovers. And try as he might, he simply can’t help but get involved.

Sam Shepard plays Russel, a recently paroled convict and the father of the man Richard shot – or so they both initially think. Understandably, there’s an unspoken antagonism between them. Richard is convinced that Russel will seek retribution, and indeed that’s what Russel originally has in mind.

In perhaps the story’s most unique twist, Richard and Russel form an unlikely (and initially uneasy) partnership to determine the depths of the tricky, twisty matter confronting them. In a sense, both men have been deceived, they want to know why and by whom, and they’re damned well going to find out.

That’s where Russel’s old friend, part-time private eye and full-time pig farmer Jim Bob Luke comes in. As played with great, gutsy brio by Don Johnson, this character becomes the film’s most colorful – a methodical investigator unafraid to get his hands dirty when the situation calls for it, and this situation definitely calls for it. Hall may be the nominal star, but Shepard and Johnson have the juicier roles.

Director Jim Mickle, who penned the screenplay with Nick Damici (who appears to good effect as the police chief who wants to file away the case as soon as possible), brings an unforced, sometimes stylish, energy to the proceedings, leavened with dark humor, Western touches and elements of Old Testament justice. There are echoes of John Carpenter’s early work in some of the suspense scenes, right down to the eerie, pounding music provided by Jeff Grace. Mickle is clearly paying homage, and he’s doing it in exactly the right way. Cold in July is a cool, sometimes cruel (appropriately so) alternative to higher-profile, higher-concept film fare this summer movie season.

Cold in July is scheduled to open Friday !

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