A grim, gritty and darkly comic thriller, Jim Mickle’s 2014 release Cold In July hits all the right marks for delivering a thriller that goes against the mainstream grain. Michael C. Hall is an all-American family man who starts a series of dangerous events when he kills an intruder. Mickle’s film then spins off from there, taking an unlikely twist that helps create some thoroughly palpable tension for the rest of the running time.
This ‘80s period piece is beautifully constructed, with a pulsating synth-fuelled score which has echoes of John Carpenter’s musical work. Mickle and co-writer (and co-star) Nick Damici, working from a novel by R. Lansdale, has crafted a screenplay that takes a lot of chances. It looks like this might just be a standard revenge-type thriller, but the duo take a lot of risks in the second act when they introduce Don Johnson’s Jim Bob.
Don Jonson has never been better on screen than he is here. He’s relaxed and charismatic and carries the rest of the film like the movie star he never quite had the chance to be. Hitting the big time with Miami Vice in the 1980s, Johnson was never entirely allowed to move away from the persona of Sonny Crockett. He tried, but audiences always seemed to simply associate him with pastel colours and designer stubble. He had a strong second wind with Nash Bridges in the 1990s, but Johnson always deserved more. He’s always had the looks of a screen hero, with a glint of evil bubbling under the surface. Given a chance he could have had a similar career trajectory to Michael Douglas (another star who got his break in a TV detective show) where he could have balanced a heroic screen persona with that of the villain. Johnson’s Jim Bob is a role that should make Hollywood take note. They won’t of course, and that shows you what is currently wrong with the vacuous plasticity of the movie business today.
Sam Shepard joins Hall and Johnson and he adds his usual grizzled-washed-out cowboy weight to Cold In July. Shepard’s another actor who Hollywood never knew how to handle. A playwright at heart, Shepard could have been a huge leading man, but he seemed more at ease in supporting roles. The passage of time has added creases and cracks and he now looks like the last of the great Hollywood cowboys.
Unpredictable and well-crafted, Cold In July is a thriller that sizzles under the surface. At once accessible and unconventional, Jim Mickle has delivered one of the decade’s best cult movies.