J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sundance ’14: Cold in July

In Texas, they do not need “stand your ground laws.” Instead, they apply the “did he have it coming” standard.  As a result, not too many people are concerned when Richard Dane accidentally kills a home intruder, least of all the police. However, the deceased’s ex-con father seems somewhat put-out by it all in Jim Mickle’s Cold in July, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Dane is hardly an action hero. He truly did not intend to kill Freddy Russell when he interrupted the burglar at work.  The situation just made him understandably jumpy. Ray Price (the cop on the case, rather than the Nixon speechwriter) is happy to sweep the entire incident under the rug, but not Ben Russell. Released just in time for his estranged son’s funeral, he soon starts threatening Dane and his family. At first, Price assumes he is just posturing, but things escalate quickly.  Then the first game-changing shoe drops.

Adapted from Joe R. Lansdale’s novel, July starts out as a conventional home invasion-revenge thriller, but radically shifts gears in the second act, veering into Andrew Vachss territory.  While it appropriately has the dusty noir look of Jim Thompson films, it is way darker than even The Killer Inside Me. There are scenes here that sensitive viewers might wish they could “unsee.”

Regardless, it is brutally effective when it gets down to business. The late 1980’s period details also help the film’s thriller dynamics, taking the internet and cell phones (aside from a running Gordon Gekko style gag) out of the picture. It all ends in a bloody and ironic place that should satisfy genre fans.

Michael C. Hall does decent work as Dane, but he is simply overwhelmed by the seriously hardboiled Sam Shepard, seething like mad as the senior Russell. Yet, Don Johnson chews more scenery and out hardnoses everyone as Jim Bob Luke, a sort of gunslinger recruited into the bloody family feud. As a further bonus, Mickle’s co-writer Nick Damici adds some distinctively noir seasoning as Price, the shady copper.

Stylish, intense, and at times blackly comic, July is a slickly executed criminal morality play. However, it might be too strong for Lifetime and Hallmark Channel viewers. Recommended for hardy film noir connoisseurs, Cold in July screens today (1/20) in Salt Lake and tomorrow (1/21), Thursday (1/23), and Saturday (1/25) in Park City, as part of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

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