I approached “Cold in July” with some trepidation, not just because the trailer looked grim, but because the aftertaste left by director Jim Mickle’s previous offering — a Gothic tale of cannibalistic horror called “We Are What We Are” — was still bitter in my mouth.
His new film, however, washed all that unpleasantness away. It’s still grim, mind you, but in a hauntingly neo-noirish way. It disturbs, even as it rewards those who stay with it. Plus, the trio of actors who carry this violent, morally complex tale — Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson and Sam Shepard — have never been better. They’re a pure pleasure to watch, even when what they’re doing is, emphatically, not.
In a bit of meta casting, Hall portrays a man sucked into a kind of vigilantism that echoes the ambivalent nature of the avenging-angel serial killer he played on “Dexter.” It’s by no means the same character or circumstance, but the resonance between the two roles is there (and undoubtedly not accidental).
Hall plays Rich Dane, a mild-mannered Texas frame shop owner whose fatal shooting of an intruder in his family’s living room one night precipitates a mystery. When Rich discovers that the guy he put a bullet in is not the man the police say he is, Rich finds himself drawn into an unlikely alliance with ex-con Ben Russell (Shepard), the grieving father of Rich’s putative “victim.” Ben is a man whose initial desire for revenge turns into a quest for answers — along with a kind of justice that’s simultaneously pure and perverted — when it becomes apparent that his son may actually still be alive.
What that justice means, and what it costs, is the film’s true subject. Adapted from Joe R. Lansdale’s novel by the director and his frequent collaborator Nick Damici (who also plays a corrupt cop), “Cold” is Greek tragedy with a twang.
As Ben’s focus shifts, so does the film’s. Early on, “Cold in July” looks to be a simple stalker thriller. Angry about what he believes is his son’s killing, Ben starts terrorizing Rich and his wife and young son (Vinessa Shaw and Brogan Hall). But as the truth slowly comes to light — thanks to some snooping by a friend of Ben’s, Johnson’s flamboyant amateur gumshoe Jim Bob Luke — the film takes a dark and disturbing change of direction, not to mention tone.
Mickle handles both shifts nicely. The first half of “Cold” is tense and suspenseful, albeit in a conventional way; the second half is sickeningly compelling. It’s hard to watch and hard to look away from. One scene features the three men looking at an incriminating videotape they’ve stumbled on — the story is set in 1989 — and they all have the same mixed reaction: They’re looking for answers that they’d rather not know.
But once you know something, you can’t unknow it. Nor can you escape what the undertow of knowledge pulls you toward: action. Rich, Ben and Jim Bob’s discovery binds them, like a chain gang, not only to each other, but also to an awful inevitability, the playing out of which forms the film’s final act.
The “Cold” in “Cold in July” has nothing to do with the weather. It refers to a bleak, hard truth. It is our humanity — our warm-bloodedness — that constrains us, sometimes, to do the cold-blooded.
★ ★ ★
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains obscenity, disturbing thematic material and bloody violence. 109 minutes.