The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Cold in July

Reviewed by Tom Steward.

Director Jim MIckle
Length 109 mins
Certificate 15 / R
Rating ****------
Filmmaking: 2  Personal enjoyment: 2

Photo from the article It’s always gratifying to find a movie with a straightforward screenplay that takes a simple premise from start to finish with minimal fuss and pretension, especially at a time when there are many good and bad movies but few serviceable ones. But if, like Cold in July, you’re a movie that wishes to be considered hard-boiled, noir or pulp, the story needs to be told with a certain vicarious relish, a flair for the comic or grotesque, even a little decadence. This movie stays remarkably po-faced throughout, apart from an unintentionally mannered lead performance by Michael C. Hall and despite potential for a knockabout final third following the arrival of a pig farmer-shamus played by Don Johnson. Also, in trying to capture the humdrum, the movie ends up doing everything perfunctorily. In a potboiler, suspense has to be the blood running through the veins of the movie, not simply a few set-pieces.

East Texas, 1989. Picture framer Richard (Michael C. Hall) accidentally shoots and kills a burglar at his home one night. He is informed by local police that he is off the hook for shooting thanks to some liberally interpreted home defence laws and that the burglar was known criminal Freddy (Wyatt Russell), son of local villain Russel (Sam Shepard). Wracked by guilt, Richard attends Freddy’s burial only to find Russel at the graveside, who immediately threatens Richard and his family. Russel manages to break into Richard’s house a couple of times, even with a police perimeter, before he is arrested trying to escape into Mexico. After seeing a mug shot of Freddy at the police station, Richard begins to question whether his victim was actually who the police said it was. With the help of shady private detective Jim Bob and some underworld characters, Richard sets about finding the truth.

Director Jim Mickle has talked about his admiration for the Texan noir but there’s little evidence here that’s he taken anything from them except the hats. This sub-genre of hard-boiled fiction is approached complacently. As the material is so quintessentially regional and noirish, neither the director nor the screenwriter seem to think anything needs to be done to it. I find it refreshing that the movie has a well-crafted three-act structure that sticks to bare minimum of action it needs to keep the story going. But I think it was a mistake to apply this mechanical approach to story to genre. All variations of noir have a pool of unvarying stock characters (private eyes, corrupt cops, small-time hoods) but only in the ones that don’t work do we feel that this is taken for granted. All noir should have exemplary dialogue, and there’s nothing here beyond the fundamentals of exposition.

There’s some nicely evocative design work in the movie, which captures Tex-Mex small-town kitsch well, and I thought the paletteless, faded look of the cinematography was the right choice aesthetically. As I’ll go on to talk about in the Alternate Take, the movie suffers from a somewhat egregious overlay of 80s looks and sounds that’s more about conforming with current nostalgia trends than doing justice to the period. Hall plays his role with a pantomime camp that’s entirely wrong for the character and movie and though Shepard and Johnson are well-cast, they’re extremely limited by the functionality of their characters. The storytelling is candid and clear but there’s some incongruous and ham-fisted symbolism now and then that adds nothing, as well as some noirish lighting effects that are by-the-numbers. The storytelling goes awry when trying to do affect. It’s impossible to be suspenseful by merely putting suspenseful movie devices onscreen.

Alternate Take to follow soon...

This review was published on June 23, 2014.

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