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By KJ Doughton | January 19, 2014

What is going on here? That’s what most people will be saying to themselves through the majority of Jim Mickle’s truly undefinable Cold in July, based on the novella by Joe Lansdale, starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Vinessa Shaw, and Don Johnson. If you’re not willing to take the genre-jumping ride, Cold in July will be jarring. If video stores still existed, they’d have to get multiple copies and put them in multiple categories.

Mickle’s film starts as a stand-your-ground drama and turns into an ‘80s thriller before morphing through mystery, dark comedy, and ending with something akin to the horror roots that brought him back to Sundance after wowing audiences with We Are What We Are last year. The result is a film that sometimes lurches more than hums but contains enough unique filmmaking tools on the part of its incredibly confident director that he always keeps it interesting. My issues with Cold in July stem from the source material, which veers wildly like pulp fiction so often does, but Mickle and his talented cast make it work.

Richard Dane (Hall) is an average family man with a son. He wakes up one night in the bed he shares with wife Ann (Shaw) to hear someone breaking into his house. With shaking hands, he loads his gun. As he approaches the living room, the flashlight-carrying intruder turns, the clock chimes, and Richard shoots, splattering brains all over the family pictures above the couch. While the young man he killed didn’t have a gun, the local cop (writer and regular Mickle collaborator Nick Damici) convinces Richard not to worry. It will be seen as self-defense, and while Dane is uncomfortable with the semi-celebrity status in this small town, everyone will move on.

Of course, there’s no movie if that happens. While Richard had a son, the boy he shot had a father, and the violent patriarch has just been released from prison. Ben Russel (Sam Shepard) is a total psychopath, tormenting Dane not unlike Max Cady in Cape Fear. He stalks Richard’s son at school, and Richard understandably worries that he’ll do something to his boy out of vengeance. After a break-in that was clearly the doing of Russel, the cops finally take the situation seriously and stake out the Dane house. What follows is a fantastic thriller set-piece in the rain with cops hiding behind trees, the family inside as bait, and the smartest of the bunch lurking in the darkness.

Anything after here would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say, you have NO idea where Cold in July is going if you haven’t read the book. In the same way pulp fiction has a tendency to take left, right, and 180-degree turns, Cold in July becomes something different every few minutes. Just when you think you have a finger on it, it turns.

And some of those quick adjustments can be jarring. I found the characters getting lost in the dense plotting when I really wanted to know more about the two central men of the piece, fathers forced into each other’s lives. Cold in July is one of those films in which an act of violence opens a door to a world of extreme awfulness that we don’t even want to think exists, but I wish the people felt as important to the journey as the destination.

However, these are narrative/plot issues on my part because Mickle and his team do some remarkably confident work here. I love that aforementioned house stakeout, with its alternating shots of cops in the rain and domesticity inside. Mickle, as he did with We Are What We Are, tells his story visually, never underlining the beats. If anything my issues with Cold in July, which, for the record, never derail the film from working overall, just from reaching the peaks of his last film, relate to how differently I think Mickle and Lansdale approach storytelling. The former has become so confident in his composition and the latter pumps so much story into a novella that you would think this was based on a trilogy. I liked the small beats of Cold in July enough to recommend it for sure even if the larger story beats sometimes distracted.

In terms of performance, Hall is essentially a straight man here, carrying the film from that gunshot at the beginning to its insane climax, and picking up scene-stealing Sam Shepard and Don Johnson on the way. Hall is not bad but Shepard steals the film, doing his best work in years. Everyone here is good, again clarifying Mickle’s strength as a director.

Jim Mickle refuses to be put in a box. He makes a vampire flick like Stake Land, veers to a Southern Gothic tone in We Are What We Are, and then takes another shocking turn into this genre hybrid that plays like Night of the Hunter, Justified, and Hardcore. Any issues with the actual narrative fall away when one considers the risk-taking here. We need more risk-takers in horror and I can’t wait to see what he does next. I can tell you it will be something different.

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