COLD IN JULY (letterboxd review)
This review reportedly contains spoilers.
Okay... sorry, Jim Mickle: This one is going to sting.
I went into COLD IN JULY with very high hopes and expectations. Not only did the Rottentomatoes critical community eat it up to the tune of 85% critical praise, but I'm a bonafide sucker for (and purveyor of) southern-fried crime stories.
This is a story with hellafied potential in the set-up alone: When a man kills an intruder during a home invasion, he's soon harassed and his family threatened by the jailbird father of the deceased.
That is a strong, provocative, straight forward premise with real built-in stakes, pathos, generational thematics, and the promise of dramatic tension. But alas, it veers *wildly* off course in both tone and plotting.
A lot of the blame goes to the source material, surely, but I think director Mickle has to shoulder his fair (and sizable) share of it as well. Again, his film has been universally praised, and for that he should be pleased. And who am I, but a lowly writer and filmmaker who's working hard to be in a position to make feature films like Mickle has and is? Who am I to disagree with these professional critics, who apparently watched a different film than I did — or bought in so hardcore during the early, more promising scenes that they stuck with it once the plot and tone and direction had jumped the tracks like the Fonz over so many hungry sharks?
First things first, the story: What could have been a thematically contained, tense, suspenseful tale of a man who accidentally pulled a trigger and altered the course of his life forever and thus must fight to protect his family from a dangerous convict is instead the convoluted, inconsistent, and ever-parting-with-reality tale of a man who accidentally kills an intruder, finds he is being targeted by said intruder's murderous criminal father, then finds the police are corrupt and ends up saving the murderous criminal father when the cops try to kill him, then they team up when our hero (a meek "picture framer," mind you) finds out the man he killed was indeed NOT the son of the murderous criminal, but some random, unknown entity (complete with fingertips and teeth removed so as to conceal the fact that the deceased is not who the cops say he is), and that the murderous criminal's actual son is in the witness protection program as he has sung like a canary to the police in regards to his "Dixie Mafia" cohorts, and now, under the veil of Witness Protection, lives as a video store owner while meanwhile killing underaged Mexican prostitutes in snuff films — a crime for which his murderous criminal father (and, for some reason, the "framer" hero and eccentric pig farmer private eye they've enlisted, played by the ever entertaining relic known as Don Johnson) has decided he must die.
You see where I'm going here? It's a mess. It's all over the place. I can appreciate the fact that the film took a wild narrative turn, I found that refreshing actually — initially — but as the story continued to spiral further and further out of control the sneaking suspicions I had early on that we were not in the best of hands directorially were confirmed... by the end and the big, obligatory "set piece" shootout (a term I hoped would not be necessary in reviewing this movie when I first hit "play" on the Blu Ray), the characters (primarily our protagonist) behaved in laughable manners that belied anything remotely resembling common sense or relevant motivation.
Let me track this for you:
Dane, the framer (played by a typically muted Michael C. Hall), kills this home invader. Dane feels bad about it. He's a Christian, a good man with a conscience. Dead guy's supposed bad seed daddy shows up. Dane is fearful for his family, wants police protection. Finally gets it, but finds it to be of the incompetent variety. After the bad seed daddy ("Ben Russell," played by American living legend of theater and film Sam Shepard) hides in a crawlspace in Dane's home and has a chance to kill Dane's own son in retribution (but curiously doesn't) before escaping and being caught in Mexico... Dane curiously takes an unexplained, conscience-driven drive by the apartment of Ben (who has supposedly been apprehended, but is somehow still in town and just chillin', unless I missed something), only to conveniently arrive as the police are dragging Ben out and stuffing him into the back seat of a nondescript car. Dane, curious as ever, follows, and watches as the dirty cops inject Ben with some sort of sleeping aid and leave him to die on a set of midnight train tracks. At this point, Dane would probably want nothing more than to see Ben disappear and stop harassing him — but, being a Christian or man of conscience or whatever he saves the old jailbird who has overtly threatened his family.
From here the plot completely shifts away from a story of retribution, and sees Ben and Dane team up, with the help of "Jim Bob," (yes — "Jim Bob") the private eye/pig farmer (yes — "pig farmer") Ben enlists to help them find his actual son that Dane now believes was *not* the man he killed. Fine, whatever. But...
There is a GREAT throughline and motivation for Dane that Mickle (and presumably novelist Joe R. Lansdale) all but casts aside: Once he finds out he did not kill Freddy Russell, son of Ben, Dane wonders who that is at the bottom of the grave. Who is this mystery man he ended the life of? Who have the cops buried, knowing he was not who they say he was? THIS WHOLE ELEMENT, one that could have conceivably weighed heavily on the mind of such a conscience-driven man as Dane, and been a real source of character motivation to continue navigating this plot as opposed to just going home and enjoying his now-safe family (once Ben is off his tail, now knowing his son is actually alive and Dane didn't kill him) is used for one beat and one beat only and then summarily discarded.
This is the only way I could see Dane still invested in this plotting, the desire to find out who he *actually* killed. And he does seem motivated by this notion — again, for a single beat. Then he's suddenly all about helping Ben find his son, and once they find him and discover he is a maker of snuff films, Dane (remember, meek framer of pictures and Christian and family man) now — for some reason that completely escapes me — is compelled to go into a veritable guarded fort, both fists filled with firearms, to kill anyone who steps in his path as he helps Ben kill his own son (a very solid irony that could have been better implemented in a seriously toned down plot). I see ZERO realistic, palpable motivation for such a turn of events to unfold and for Dane to behave in such a manner.
By the end I was groaning and rolling my eyes like Caesar with the "falling sickness," and Mickle's penchant for over-direction (which I had sniffed out early on and watched grow more and more into focus as the film progressed and continued to deteriorate) was fully evident: The lighting, pacing, overwrought slow-mo (not a fan of this far too-used device, which often strives to impart gravity and stakes but only serves to slow plot and tip its hat to cliché), etc was egregious. It was like he tried to get all Nic Refn with Bangkok lighting in what looked like a fortified barn. It made no sense. TONE IT DOWN, son! Do less. Move the camera less. Get less "arty" and contrived with the lighting, try to be less clever in the plotting, etc — the lesson Mickle imparts, inadvertently, is this (as etched into the great Charles Bukowski's tombstone):
Or at least try to be less conspicuous as a director, if you want us to take what is presented as a boiled-down southern fried noir seriously. Or, if you are going to be artfully conspicuous, let it be for well-thought out and measured framing and camera movement, not gratuity and paint-by-numbers film schoolery.
I dunno, by this point I had checked out thanks to the narrative warts and very well could have just been shitting on any and every aspect of the film — but I would contend that is the fault of the film, and not my own.
I could continue. I could talk about what a worthless character Dane's wife was (played by Vinessa Shaw), how she was nothing but a typical dissatisfied, one-note harpy who offered nothing but forced conflict by way of being inordinately bitchy for no reason, another tell-tale sign of inferior storytelling... but that would just be piling on.
Again, I went into this one wanting to love it and I was on its side off the blocks... but its compounding sins were too many for this humble viewer in the end.
Final verdict? As much as it pains me to say:
SKIP IT (with the concession that it has high reviews, and you might dig it so... SEE IT IF YOU WANT?)
ETA: Two Stars for execution, with an extra half for the great premise and set-up.