Thursday, May 29, 2014

Off the Chain: Jim Mickle's Cold in July

Michael C. Hall and Sam Shepard in Jim Mickle's Cold in July

The young neo-grindhouse filmmaker Jim Mickle attracted some underground attention with his first film, Mulberry Street (2006), which got away with using a virus that turns people into murderous humanoid rat creatures as a metaphor for gentrification, then attracted some more with his post-apocalyptic vampire film Stake Land (2010). (Last year, he released a “re-imagining” of the nifty Mexican cannibal-family movie We Are What We Are, which, while not in the same league as Let Me In, Matt Reeves’ remake of Let the Right One In, or David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is not half bad for a movie that would not exist were it not for American film distributors’ tender sensitivity toward the plight of those who would rather miss a good flick rather than attempt to read subtitles.)

If Mickle has yet to build up the kind of reputation and critical name-recognition of some other indie directors working the same territory, such as Larry Fessendon and Ti West and those who mix horror with mumblecore and found-footage gimmickry, it may just be because his movies aren’t as obviously thesis-oriented in their approach to freshening up the genre. (Dave Kehr once wrote that Fessendon’s early movies suggested what it might have been like if the classic Universal monster movies had been made by John Cassavettes; even if a conceit like that doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time at the movies, it sure catches your attention.)

There’s a rich pulpiness running through all of Mickle’s work, including the new Cold in July, an adaptation of a novel by the crime-and-horror writer Joe R. Lansdale. (The script is by Mickle and his regular co-writer, Nick Damici, who also starred in Mulberry Street and Stake Land, and appears here as a smiling, vaguely untrustworthy sheriff.) The setting is Texas—in 1989, the year the novel was first published. (The plot requires that the heroes have handy access to a VCR.) On the surface, this is a sun-baked action thriller about blood ties, guilt, and revenge, but though there are no supernatural elements (or cannibals), it, too, is a horror story. Shot by Ryan Samul, Cold in July takes place in a world that looks sweat-stained and neon-lit, even when the scenes take place in broad daylight. The look of the more is more than a little reminiscent of Barry Sonnenfeld’s work on the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple, but this film is so much less mannered and more gleefully instinctual than the Coens’ maiden voyage that Cold in July could be the long-lost cult film that the Coens were imitating.

Michael C. Hall, effectively white-trashified with a wispy mustache and an even wispier mullet, plays a mild-mannered family man who shoots a home intruder and has to contend with the dead man’s badass father (Sam Shepard). Halfway through the movie, Don Johnson makes his entrance as the third major character, a Texas-gonzo-style private detective who, at one point, contrives to get the shit kicked out of him by a thug twice his size, apparently just as a way to break the ice. The plot takes a couple of left turns, but Johnson is easily the biggest surprise in the movie. For the first half, the atmosphere and the unfolding of the story are enough to hold the viewer’s attention, but Johnson kicks in into another gear. (Both Hall and Shepard are fine, but until they have Johnson to bounce off, they’re also a little colorless. Hall may have felt it was necessary to make his character less clever than necessary to  make him that much more different than his TV character, Dexter, who finally vanished last fall after having overstayed his welcome by a few seasons.) When the heroes load up on weapons and ammo and go off to confront the forces of evil, you may be less reminded of Charles Bronson and Steven Seagal than of the climax of The Wild Bunch; the filmmaking technique sure isn’t up there with Peckinpah’s, but there’s a similar feeling of crusty old guys being ready to go out in a thrilling blaze of glory rather than tolerate one more second of this crap. Any movie that can make you think of Sam Peckinpah while you’re watching Don Johnson without causing you to double over laughing has accomplished something unlikely and special.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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