“Cold in July” opens with an Everyman’s nightmare: It’s 3 a.m. and you’re woken by the sounds of an intruder in your living room. This being Texas, the hero, a mild-mannered small-town picture-framer named Rich Dane (Michael C. Hall), has a gun, but his hands shake as he loads the bullets, and the scene’s bloody climax is more a matter of shot nerves than self-defense.
“Sometimes the good guy wins,” drawls the sheriff (Nick Damici, who co-wrote the script).
Rich knows better: “My finger slipped.”
The dead robber was a known loser, survived only by a mean old daddy who’s just out of prison. When Ben Russell (Sam Shepard) looms up in the window of Rich’s car and starts asking about Rich’s wife (Vinessa Shaw) and kid (Brogan Hall), “Cold in July” looks like it’s headed down the road laid by “Cape Fear” and “Straw Dogs” — movies in which a civilized wimp discovers his inner savage under assault.
Not entirely, it turns out, and one of the interests of this film is trying to figure out where it’s headed as the plot twists from one oxbow to the next. You may be put in mind of HBO’s recent “True Detective” — the low-down Southern locations, the time period (here the mid-1980s), some truly horrible crimes, a general air of diseased moralism — but “Cold in July,” while stylishly done, isn’t close to that good.
Still, it’s fun to see Hall play a weenie with a mullet and a Steven Weed mustache, if only to be reminded that there’s (much) more to the actor than “Dexter.” Discovering that the man he killed may not be who the sheriff says, Rich gingerly investigates, like a choirboy peeping into a cathouse. All he wants to know is whom he shot. Unfortunately, that turns out to be one of the handful of questions “Cold in July” forgets to answer, whether through intentional omission or narrative ADHD.
The movie’s mostly about Rich’s pilgrim’s regress as he tries to solve the mystery with the help of the grizzled Ben and Jim Bob Luke, a yeehawing private eye played by Don Johnson with a cowboy hat, cherry-red convertible, and a jolt of energy the movie needs. The trail leads to some very bad men doing very bad things, and the question of calling 911 is never remotely on the menu. “Cold in July” isn’t troubled by the ethics of vigilantism — like I said, we’re in Texas — but only whether Rich will be man enough to saddle up. Beneath the neo-noir clichés is a tough little western trying to get out.
Directed and co-written by Jim Mickle and based on a novel by the maverick writer Joe R. Lansdale, “Cold in July” ultimately tries to do too much and ends up not doing quite enough — often entertainingly, not always believably. The movie isn’t a character study, although Hall gives subtle shadings to the earnest but inarticulate Rich. (Is his picture-framing shop a nod to “The American Friend” of novelist Patricia Highsmith and director Wim Wenders?) It’s richer and more atmospheric than a B-movie shoot-’em-up, although to what purpose isn’t clear. And it’s skillfully shot if over-shot, with a reliance on colored filters that bluntly symbolize the emotional temperature of any given scene.
Best, then, to approach “Cold in July” as a leaner, meaner ’80s homage, from the semi-cheesy synthesizer stings on the soundtrack to the cellphones as big as the characters’ heads. The dread’s just a little deeper now, and the brains on the walls more realistic.