“The spirits of 1980s genre maestros like John Carpenter, Walter Hill and William Lustig hover strongly over Jim Mickle’s Cold in July, a superior piece of Texas pulp fiction that starts out like a house on fire, sags a bit in the middle, then rallies for an exuberantly bloody finish,” began Variety‘s Scott Foundas when the film premiered at Sundance in January. And now, as announced today, it’s headed to Cannes where it’ll screen as part of this year’s Directors’ Fortnight.
“Four features into his career, any words along the lines of ‘look out for Jim Mickle’ are beginning to feel somewhat redundant,” writes Guy Lodge at In Contention. “[W]e’re looking, and he keeps showing up, nailing one nifty little genre film after another…. And after 2010’s sharp vampire-zombie fusion Stake Land and last year’s frankly superior remake of cannibal drama We Are What We Are, Mickle’s hot streak is still intact: Cold in July… is a cracking domestic thriller, playing a little like David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence structurally smashed to a pulp—with the emphasis firmly on ‘pulp.'”
“Built around nifty yin-yang paired performances by Michael C. Hall and Sam Shepard, along with a huge comic-relief assist from Don Johnson and his fire-engine red Caddy, Cold in July is tense, gripping, gruesome, often hilarious, brilliantly engineered and highly satisfying,” writes Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir.
The set-up, courtesy of Twitch‘s Todd Brown:
We begin with a domestic nightmare, meek businessman and father Richard Dane (Michael C Hall)—a picture framer by trade—awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of an intruder in his house. Dane scrambles for a gun in the closet and makes his way, trembling, to the living room where a robbery is in progress. Panicked and shaking Dane’s finger slips on the trigger and the intruder is killed. His wife is safe, his child as well, but Dane must cope with the emotional aftermath of being responsible for taking another life. Which would be quite a lot to cope with in itself but life gets much worse when the police tell Dane the dead man was well known to them—both for his own history and that of his father, a lifetime felon freshly released from prison. And dad (Sam Shepard) is not happy at all.
“Any detailed discussion of what happens from here on in would spoil the nasty fun as the action takes some radical turns,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “Let’s just say, however, that by a series of plot contrivances, murky motivations and unlikely bargains, Richard ends up forging unexpected allegiances. It doesn’t quite hold water that this formerly mild-mannered Joe Citizen would be drawn of his own volition into life-threatening situations that don’t directly concern him. But Hall—costumed to look more heavyset than usual, and sporting a mullet and mustache—lends conviction to the notion that Richard’s unwitting role in a death has triggered something unknowable in his psyche.”
“Eventually,” writes the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd, “Cold in July has to reach its destination—and the film’s upshot didn’t just disappoint me, it put a bad taste in my mouth. Without saying much more, it’s a weird path to forge, from the thorny moral inquiries of act one to the pandering genre thrills of act three.”
The Dissolve‘s Noel Murray is “not sure that overall the film has anything new or profound to say about masculinity or the allure of danger. But the unpredictability of the plot is a major selling point, as is the film’s ruthless efficiency. No time is wasted on set-up, or backstory. Cold in July begins with the botched robbery, and from there it’s go-go-go.”
Hall’s “nervy, anxious and yet determined father wears the crushing weight of all the intense drama with convincing panic and fear,” writes Rodrigo Perez at the Playlist. “Johnson is a hoot, too, seemingly having the time of his life being the more relaxed, and comical character.”
For Bryan Adams at The Credits, “watching Hall, Shepard and Johnson deal with the unfolding mayhem is a pleasure—and Mickle gets great work by his crew, from cinematographer Ryan Samul to composer Jeff Grace’s score (imagine a barbecued version of the synth score so beloved in 2011’s Drive by Cliff Martinez). This is a film about crooked cops and hard hearted ex-cons and loving family men and sadistic murderers all thrown into a blender of a story and set on high—it’s pure noir, and in Mickle’s hands, aided by an ace cast and crew, it goes down easy.”
As Nigel M. Smith reports at Indiewire, IFC Films has acquired North American rights.
Update, 5/7: “Rather than update Joe R. Lansdale’s 1989 novel, Mickle and co-writer [Nick] Damici treat it as a period piece, saddling Hall with a mall-coiffed mullet and moustache, and populating the mise en scène with microwave ovens, corded phones, and Don Johnson,” writes Eric Hynes in Film Comment. “This flaunting of bargain-bin accoutrements doesn’t exactly match the grim stakes, but it does help to establish a sense of unpredictability and to make the story’s outlandish plot twists seem possible, if not quite plausible. Mickle may be just playing with genre, but at least he approaches it with vitality, inventiveness, and pleasure.”
Updates, 5/19: “Would-be master of horror Jim Mickle has a distinctly old-school gift for intimating doom that can feel like a fetish,” writes Slant‘s Ed Gonzalez. “The story, set in 1983, essentially imagines Assault on Precinct 13 inside a suburban home… This tension is summoned through a brazen but effective approximation of John Carpenter’s signature style, from Mickle’s static camera to the ever-bubbling synth squelches of Jeff Grace’s score, and it’s as a modest character that flirts with suspense, about Richard’s unflagging drive to get Ben off his lawn, that Cold in July feels most compulsively watchable. The film, though, switches almost on a dime and falls into a rabbit hole of tiresome plot machinations involving a police cover-up, the Dixie mafia, and a snuff-film ring, all leading toward the flattest of emotional crescendos.”
“Does it take an outsider’s perspective to truly capture the dark side of Texas?” asks Christopher Kelly in the New York Times. “Mr. Mickle said he was first attracted to Mr. Lansdale’s novel precisely because it reminded him of films like Blood Simple and Red Rock West. ‘That was the era of movies I grew up with,’ he said. ‘There’s a part to me that wanted to pay homage to the Southern thriller, using these cowboy motifs and noir motifs and revenge thriller motifs, but whipping them up in a new way.'”
“Cold in July is a proud throwback to the early ‘90s indie-crime boom: think The Last Seduction, One False Move and Fargo.” Time Out‘s Tom Huddleston: “Any film that teams up gruffer-than-thou icons Shepard and Johnson is bound to go heavy on the testosterone, but Mickle undercuts all this strident manliness with a rich vein of self-mocking wit and paternal angst. In the end, this is a film about what it means to be a father—and the conclusions ain’t pretty.”
On the other hand, David Jenkins at Little White Lies: “Instead of creating a work that’s earthy, tactile and bubbling with Southern soul, Mickle has delivered a near-academic study of bungled narrative mechanics which demonstrates how over-intricate plotting can sap the life out of everything that surrounds it.”
Updates, 5/21: For the Dissolve‘s Noel Murray, “even as Cold in July’s overall arc approaches something of a dead-end, the individual scenes and performances are remarkable. Plus, it’s rare to see a movie where the first five minutes reveal almost nothing about what the audience can expect in the last five. Cold in July begins with the botched robbery, and from there it’s go-go-go, with Mickle jetting from plot point to plot point with ruthless efficiency and almost no foreshadowing…. It looms over viewers like it can’t wait to kick their ass. And then it kicks.”
“After the monotone gray-blue of We Are What We Are, Mickle and crew really embrace the ripe pulp plot with succulent colors to match,” writes R. Emmet Sweeney at Movie Morlocks. “It’s a film of saturated neons, seemingly lit by stop and brake light, a melange of rich reds/yellows/greens and an occasional comic-book royal blue emanating as moonlight.”
Mickle and Damici “have always had a tougher time with characters, so they’re smart here to work with strong material like Joe R. Lansdale’s source novel,” writes Henry Stewart at the L. “What emerges from this collaboration is something thematically primal, alternately soaked in sun and rain and blood, a movie about the different responsibilities fathers bear vis-à-vis their children: to keep them safe from the world, yes, but also to keep the world safe from them.”
Updates, 5/24: “Cold in July is a noir thriller that at first seems straightforward, compact, scary but a mite predictable,” writes New York‘s David Edelstein. “Before you quite know what’s happening, you’re swerving into another sort of movie altogether. And then another. You might not buy them all, but what a great ride.”
“Hell, even identifying what specific kind of thriller it is requires constant re-evaluation,” agrees the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd. That said, “As entertaining as it is to watch Cold in July drift, the film has to eventually pick a lane—and that’s where this otherwise accomplished suspense picture runs into the ditch. Without saying much more, it’s a weird path to forge, from the thorny moral inquiries of act one to the pandering genre thrills of act three. The upshot isn’t just genuinely dumb, it’s a bit tasteless, as though either Lansdale or Mickle let some irresponsible 14-year-old dream up a ‘badass’ ending. Enjoying a long, strange trip doesn’t always mean appreciating the destination.”
At RogerEbert.com, Simon Abrams finds that the film “fails to capture the discomfiting qualities that make it a Joe Lansdale story. Readers may know Lansdale as the screenwriter of Bubba Ho-Tep, or the writer of the bizzaro Jonah Hex mini-series that inspired the awful Jonah Hex film. Being faithfully Lansdale-y is a nigh-impossible trick to pull off.” And Mickle “makes an already difficult job even harder for himself by smothering his adaptation in distracting stylistic flourishes.”
“Mickle has one of the best eyes in the business,” writes Richard T. Jameson at Parallax View. “His frames are CinemaScope wide (Ryan Samul is and has been his DP), acutely attuned to his characters’ states of mind and emotion, what they can and can’t see or know, the feel of a place, and ever alert to eccentric opportunities such as a very large man contorted on a lawn at extreme frame left while a small yapping dog strains against its leash at extreme right.”
“Mickle might be just a couple of steps from making a masterpiece, and while Cold in July is certainly not that, ‘stylish and unpredictable’ is not a bad foundation on which to build,” writes Robert Horton in the Seattle Weekly.
“Taking a chance by expanding his repertoire and moving away from the relative safety of the horror world, Mickle here moves from strength to strength,” argues Twitch‘s Todd Brown. “Once again, this is a remarkable bit of work from one of the brightest lights on the American indie scene.”
Update, 5/28: R. Emmet Sweeney talks with Mickle for Film Comment.
Update, 6/2: “Cold in July offers a very modern exploration of masculinity via all of its leads,” writes Cheryl Eddy in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. “Unlike Viggo Mortensen’s secret gangster in 2005’s A History of Violence, which begins with a similar premise (family guy shoots someone in self-defense, opening a can of worms in the process), Richard has zero past aggression to draw on; dude’s got a history of mildness—with a heretoforth untapped curiosity about the wilder side of life awakened by a sudden bloody act. Once again, Mickle has delivered an unfuck-with-able film. Can’t wait to see what he does next.”