Cold in July begins at late night. It’s deadly quiet apart from the gentle pulsing of the synth-led soundtrack. Richard Dane’s wife Ann gets woken up by a noise and, in a tense sequence, her husband gets up to investigate it. He’s no confident man of the house, but shaking and nervous as he picks up a weapon. That shakiness leads him to shoot the intruder, setting off a whole host of undesirable and strange consequences.
Richard is played by Michael C Hall of Dexter fame. Like Dexter, he is similarly oddball, maybe a bit nerdy, although we never see this. Unlike Dexter though, he is a complete stranger to violence. The incident shakes him and the family, demonstrated particularly well by scenes of them cleaning up the blood left behind from the incident. While not seen as any kind of local hero, he’s not exactly vilified by incident either. Instead the police are fine with accepting self-defence despite the intruder being unarmed, and that’s that.
Except it isn’t. The death of the criminal brings the wrath of his recently paroled father, Ben Russell (Sam Shepard). He menaces the family, and you could stop at that point in the script and create a perfectly decent thriller – which the film does for the first half hour or so, leading to some fairly tense sequences as everyone prepares for Ben to eventually pop up to harass the family. Cold in July doesn’t stop there, though. Not all is as it seems with the killing, and the journey to discover what’s going on goes to some dark and strange places.
Those places involve a new character, a brash stereotype played by Don Johnson. He practically steals every scene as the film finds a new ingredient: humour. The shift though is awkward. It kills the tone set up by the previous section. A final shift is similarly incongruous.
The shifts in turn fail to work because they do not acknowledge what came before. Everything moves too quickly for any proper exploration of the dilemmas the film sets up. The past is easily shed, leading to the feeling that, adversely to the film’s apparent theme, consequences don’t in fact matter. Neither do characters. When the credits roll, we know little more about the main characters than we did when it began, besides that they have a violent side.
Cold in July is a film of promise as it sets up some interesting scenarios. The elements it lays down however – a cover-up, a seedy underworld – are never investigated fully, leading to the feeling that everything is disposable. Nothing in the film is terrible, but it is all done with such a lack of flair that the whole thing is rather pedestrian, besides a quite good synth score that stands out in a world of identikit classical-influenced compositions.
This combination of pedestrianism and the feeling of being three separate films being rolled into one leads a film that is both frustrating and forgettable when it could have been heart stopping and chilling. All of the film’s parts have some merit, and you might get a kick out of one or all of them. As an overall product however, Cold in July is too messy to be recommended.
Cold in July is out now on DVD. Buy it here. Image Rights: IFC Films.