So, here’s a tip : if you’re browsing through the titles available for streaming on Netflix and looking for something good — and I mean really fucking good — to watch, you aren’t gonna do much better than Jim Mickle’s 2014 indie crime thriller Cold In July, which was just added a couple weeks back. I know that it’s a cardinal sin in the “review game” to give away your final opinion on a film right out of the gate because people then have no reason to read any further, but seriously — you’re better off watching this flick than absorbing my words of “wisdom” about it anyway, so if you cut out right here and now in order to check it out, I promise I won’t take it personally in the least.
Okay, anybody still left? The let’s talk a little bit about why this movie is so damn good, shall we?
Crime and horror novelist Joe R. Lansdale specializes in tales as thick with tension as their Texas locales are with humidity, and Mickle and his screenwriting partner, Nick Damici, have cooked up a faithful-as-a-revival-tent-on-Sunday-morning adaptation here, taking us through more twists and turns than you’ll find in a coiled rattlesnake. What starts out as a “period piece” home invasion movie set in 1987 when small-town Lone Star State frame shop owner Richard Dane (played by Michael C. Hall) and his wife, Ann (Vinessa Shaw) have their humble abode broken into by a masked intruder quickly morphs into a revenge flick when Richard shoots the burglar dead, only to have the lad’s just-released-from-prison father, Ben Russell (Sam Shepard) start stalking framer-boy’s family and threatening to kidnap — or worse — his infant son “in exchange” for the life he took. Still, that ain’t shit compared to what’s to come, as a series of events so stomach-churning and horrific you could be forgiven for getting physically ill as they play out actually ends with Richard and Ben becoming uneasy allies once it becomes clear that whoever was shot dead breaking into the house that night was most assuredly not the junior member of the Russell clan at all — in fact, thanks to the legwork done by Ben’s war- buddy-turned-pig-farmer/part-time-private-dick, Jim Bob (Don Johnson), we come to learn that Ben’s boy Freddy is alive and well, but what he’s doing to occupy his time and earn a buck? Well, that’s enough to make the old man wish he’d never popped off the load that got him started in the first place — and since he brought this monster into the world, he’s making it his personal mission to take him out of it.
If you’re getting the notion that Cold In July is a dark, brooding piece of southern-fried psychodrama, you’re absolutely right — but it’s much more than that, as well. There’s a hell of a heaping helping of “gallows humor” and well-rounded characterization of offer here, as well. Hall’s take on Richard as a fairly simple family man plunged into a mystery he never asked for but is determined to help solve is strong enough in and of itself, but it’s Shepard and Johnson who really steal the show here, with Shepard’s Ben going from cooler-than-cool figure of menace to tortured father with a conscience and Johnson’s Jim Bob walking a fine line that has flamboyant Texan-to-the-bone on the one side and sympathetic old friend on the other. Both roles are well within each of these gentlemen’s respective wheelhouses, to be sure, but seldom do you get to see even one actor knock a “role they were born to play” out of the park in a film, let alone two. It’s a real treat, to say the least, to watch this pair of pros both doing what they do best perhaps better than they’ve ever done it before.
Mickle is to be commended for doing much more than just coaxing terrific performances out of his grade-A cast, though — he imbues everything here with a palpable sense of Dixie-style dread that is absolutely steeped in the uniquely thick stew of its time and place and delivers one gut-punch after another that, somehow, you’re eager to get up from — even though you know you’re only gonna get a harder one when you do. That takes skill, my friends, and this is skilled southern noir in its most relentlessly brutal and undeniable form.
All of which, I suppose, brings us right back to where we started — this is a flick you need to see ASAP, either via Netflix, as suggested at the outset, or by means of its IFC-released Blu-ray and/or DVD physical-storage iterations. It might be damn Cold In July, but Mickle’s film is hot enough to fry some of Jim Bob’s homemade bacon on until it sizzles.