Movie Review: “Cold in July” is Southern Gothic that fails to chill

ImageWhatever the thriller “Cold in July” sets out to be, it becomes something significantly different the moment Don Johnson shows up.

What started out as a grim survive-a-criminal’s-vengeance tale, a slice of early ’80s Texas Gothic, develops a swagger the moment Ol’ Don strolls in — all cowboy books, ragtop Cadillac and southern fried private eye. He’s the kind of gunslinger who shows up in the middle of the Western, figures he makes the odds more even, bit but sure as shootin’ isn’t suicidal.

“Lotta cowboys down there,” he drawls as the “good” guys steel themselves for the big showdown with the bad guys. “You wanna rethink your math?”

“Cold in July” opens with a home invasion in which a timid framing shop owner (Michael C. Hall) shoots and kills a hooded intruder in small-town 1980s Texas. But there’s something a little off in the way the town and the cops respond. And not all of this can be attributed to “Well, it’s Texas.”

Even the postman is all back slaps and bravado.

“I hear you GOTCHA one last night.”

The cops “didn’t think you had it in you.”

Richard (Hall) is bugged by all this, rattled by every sudden noise. He knows the dude the cops said he shot has a daddy, a mean one with a prison record. And stumbling into old man Russell (Sam Shepard) as the county summarily puts the dead intruder in the ground just sets Russell off. He is all vague suggestions of this, veiled threats about that.

Next thing you know, Richard, his wife (Vinessa Shaw) and young son are under police protection, which promises to be no protection at all from a cunning killer with blood feud tendencies.

It’s along about here that Richard starts to wonder just who it was he shot in his house, just what Russell knows or doesn’t know and just what the cops are up to in luring Russell into stalking him. Something more sinister is afoot, and meek Richard is drawn into an ugly underworld where Russell knows his way around, but not nearly as well as his old pal, the private eye/pig farmer who lightens the mood and gives the coming violence a righteous, almost comical bent.

Indie filmmaker Jim Mickle, whose credits are mostly genre horror, has a hard time with tone here, jolting us from weak suspense to harrowing action to comic interlude and bloodbath finale. He basically stops the movie with each tone shift, fatal to any thriller.

Hall is a passable lead, but easily overshadowed by the grizzled Shepard and one-liner loving Johnson.

“Cold in July” is another of those seemingly pointless period pieces. Setting it 30 years ago lets the older guys pass themselves off as fellow Korean War vets and gives the production the excuse to use VCRs and lots of rattletrap late ’70s cars. Otherwise, Texas is Texas.

This is Southern Gothic that harks more to “Walking Tall” than William Faulkner, and it turns out that is alternately too ambitious and not nearly ambitious enough.

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MPAA Rating: R for disturbing bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity

Cast: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw

Credits: Directed by Jim Mickle, scripted by Nick Damici and Jim Mickle based on a Joe R. Lansdale novel. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:46

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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