Daft and old-fashioned: Cold In July

10 July 2014

Originally written 6 June...

Ordinary citizen Richard Dane is in over his head the moment a burglar breaks into his East Texas home. Trembling with fright, Richard loads the revolver he keeps in his bedside drawer and ventures into the dark. Moments later, consumed by nerves, he instinctively responds to a sudden clock-chime and pulls the trigger—shooting the intruder dead. Though obviously traumatised by the whole thing, Richard’s wife, friends, the media and the police department are all sympathetic. As it turns out, he killed a wanted felon. The incident is written off as self-defence.

That’s only the start of the trouble in Cold in July, the fourth feature film directed by Jim Mickle, whose most recent film prior to this one was We Are What We Are, an English-language remake of the under-seen 2010 Mexican horror of the same name. Mickle’s latest is an adaptation of Texan-born Joe R. Lansdale’s 1989 novel: the film retains its title, original setting and period. Known for spanning genres including the western, horror, mystery and suspense, Lansdale’s work has been adapted previously, most notably for 2002’s comedy horror Bubba Ho-Tep, which was based on a 1994 novella in which Elvis Presley is alive and well and living in a nursing home.

Certainly the highest-profile Lansdale adaptation to date—boasting a fine cast of character actors such as Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson—Cold in July is a similarly offbeat film, melding eccentric, episodic thriller elements with outlandishly dark comedy. To synopsise the film beyond its opening half hour would ruin an absurdly rocky ride through tonally ambiguous and thematically ambitious terrain. Indeed, just as the film opens with a deceptively fake landscape image, so its narrative opens out into a twisty, pulpy affair soon after. Why wrong-foot your audience once, when you can do it several times?

That said, the film is all the more daft for being so ostensibly old-fashioned. It’s not just the comparatively unassuming visual style and the pervasive musical score that root the film to a different time. It’s also the many memorable set-pieces, which seem to have been concocted and included just for the sake of taking clich├ęd scenarios and throwing them together in one long procession. Tellingly, the real turning point of the film comes when our protagonist saves a man from an oncoming train—and that’s the oldest cinematic set-piece of all.