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

Written by Tom Steward.

Photo from the article You have a mullet. You’re on your way to Jazz Video with music that sounds like a cross between Sweet Dreams by The Eurythmics and the theme from a John Carpenter movie following you around. Your world has no colour and seems to be burning at the edges. Every word you see is lit by blue steel neon. Where are you? There are two possibilities. You’re either in an ‘80s movie or a recent movie so desperate to look like an ‘80s movie it’s sacrificed any possibility of having an original and contemporary style to be a slave to nostalgia.

As a period movie, Cold in July has every reason to look and sound like it’s from the ‘80s. But what’s interesting is that it’s non-diegetic elements of the movie like the soundtrack or the credits that most resemble what we associate with the period, not the diegetic evocation of the time. As with every movie set before 1995, there has to be archaic technology gags, and here we have a double-whammy of mobile phones and top-loading VHS recorders, but the rest of the time we’re in a generic Southwestern small-town that could be anywhere between the ‘50s and now.

But, as I’ve indicated, Cold in July is not alone in wanting to go back to the ‘80s. The pop-synth of Drive had a distinctly retro feel, as did its conspicuous auto-erotica, and early scenes of The Place Beyond The Pines are set to power ballads. It’s not just Ryan Gosling movies. Super 8 was such a loving tribute to ‘80s family fantasy movies that it forgot to do it in the form of a new movie. Seth McFarlane seems to want cinema to live permanently in the ‘80s, even cramming Back to the Future into his period western comedy.

As you can probably tell, the justification of an ‘80s period setting is optional, perhaps unnecessary. Set in 1989, even Cold in July is pushing it with the John Carpenter shtick. I think we have to see this trend differently from the return to the ‘80s in TV series like The Americans and Halt and Catch Fire. These shows are certainly full of retro touches, but they are principally about moments in history and not trying to pretend to be movies (or TV) from the period. These movies want to get back to the way movies looked and sounded then.

For Cold in July at least, a lot of this nostalgia has to do with where neo-noir is at now. Whereas neo-noir of the past would look back to the ‘40s and ‘50s heyday of noir, today’s examples are held in tribute to the last great boom of neo-noir that took place in the 1980s. This was after all the decade of Body Heat, Blade Runner, Blood Simple and Angel Heart. It’s the imagery of this era of noir that’s at play in Cold in July; the smouldering blue-tinged white titles, the red and blue glare, the long dark roads.

<i>Drive</i> (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
It’s hardly surprising that the movies which impose this frame of reference are those with nothing new or interesting to say. In both Cold in July and Drive, ‘80s-influenced soundtracks fight chasms at the hearts of the movies. They are romantic escapes to the past (and to better movies) distracting audiences from stories that would be more compelling told by sock puppets. In the former, there’s a sense that the ‘80s movie imagery is a surrogate for any kind of style. It’s the perfect solution for a movie that wants to keep it plain but is worried about being boring.

I’ve noticed a particular fondness for harking back to ‘80s movies from a generic non-place where neo-noir meets urban horror. Cold in July’s strong overtones of a Carpenter-style horror suggests this while 2013’s The Jogger liberally lifted its premise from ‘80s road-nightmare The Hitcher. Again, I think Cold in July is summoning this atmosphere to compensate for not being a horror movie. Just as its sub-screen test sequences of suspense fall flat on their faces, attempts to cultivate horror out of some electronica are paltry at best. Horror and suspense are effects that need to be worked on, not inferred.

I don’t want you to think I’m not a victim of this nostalgia myself. I loved the fact that the image in Cold in July didn’t have a digital gloss over it and had that frayed and muddy texture I associate with the ‘80s and ‘90s movies of my youth. If it’s merely nostalgia for a certain movie look that is now unduly extinct, then I’m happy to oblige. As far it goes, I can get with a nostalgia for the simplicity of ‘80s movie aesthetics (music that’s just notes, minimal titles). Cold in July is nothing if not unassuming.

It’s when that nostalgia is extraneous and starts to interfere with enjoyment of the movie that I get impatient with it. One of the few qualities Cold in July has going for it is its uncomplicated storytelling. There’s always a very linear and coherent A to B, regardless of the circumstance. Needless stylistic flourishes like the retro titles and music only serve to underscore the sense that something is missing from the movie, when in fact it should be proud of the limits it sets on the action, since most movies fail to avoid excess of one kind or another.

Cold in July is fairly representative of an aping of ‘80s movie style taking place in a wide range of film genres today. The movie is probably more concerned with laying tribute to neo-noir through the vehicle of the ‘80s than it is using neo-noir to talk about the decade. The impulse to strip down moviemaking is not a bad one, but it is a problem to try to lay retro style upon sparse storytelling. Cold in July is also typical of contemporary movies using reference to ‘80s movies to paper over cracks in their content and conceal stylistic emptiness.

This Alternate Take was published on August 06, 2014.

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