Cold in July (2014)

Rating: C-

Dir: Jim Mickle
Star: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw

Based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, this begins with mild-mannered picture framer, Richard Dane (Hall), shooting a home invader dead in the middle of the night. He’s disturbed by what he has done, but even more concerning are the veiled threats of the dead man’s father, Ben Russell (Shephard), followed by Ben’s stalking of Richard and his family. With the help of the local sheriff, this seems to be resolved. Except for two things. Richard sees a wanted poster of the man he shot – who is not the man he shot. Then he sees the cops dumping a drugged Ben on the railroad tracks, intending to dispose of him.

It’s roughly at this point where a promising movie begins to go off the rails. The script opts to throw additional elements in, rather than working with the perfectly adequate pieces it already had in its hand. Impromptu exhumations! Witness protection! Organized crime! Snuff movies! Don Johnson in a cowboy hat! The last named plays private investigator Jim Bob Luke, who drags Ben and Richard along, as he digs towards the truth. Somehow, this ends with the three men going full vigilante, and storming the headquarters of the bad guys, where they are getting ready to film their next baseball-themed snuff flick. I guess the arc by which family man Richard turns into a card-carrying charter member of #TeamCharlesBronson, is what passes for character development here. Maybe he then moves to Miami and becomes a blood spatter analyst.

While the performances here are good enough to stop the movie from collapsing under its own weight of implausibility, the lack of motivation is close to a showstopper. Richard’s interest should end the moment his family’s security is assured. Yet he persists in digging, though this also requires him to show up at the back-door of the police station, at the exact moment they’re taking Ben to his doom. A doom, incidentally, that’s considerably more contrived than makes sense. A film could get away with some of these flawed elements in its script. Here, there are just too many to ignore, and at a certain point, it’s likely to derail your interest to a significant degree.

Five years later, the same director would be responsible for In the Shadow of the Moon – also starring Hall – which similarly delivered a diminishing set of returns, after an intriguing start. Two is quite a small sample-size, yet is enough grounds to suspect it may be a Mickle issue. Bizarrely, the synth score appears to have strayed in from a John Carpenter, though is not inappropriate to the late eighties setting. There’s even a scene set in a video store, the kind of thing which must increasingly be hell on the set dressers: “You need how many VHS tapes?” That I found myself contemplating such things, is likely a good indicator of the script’s loss of my attention, in between some sprightly acts of violence.