Greek tragedy this isn’t, though the movie contains hints of such heft. Foremost, writer-director Jim Mickle has made an immensely entertaining, accessibly human, inexpensive genre thriller — not such a bad thing.
Previously known for his horror pictures (“Mulberry Street,” “Stake Land”), Mickle switches gears in this adaptation, co-written with Nick Damici, of Joe R. Lansdale’s noir novel. Expect to find corrupt cops, gory showdowns and outlaws displaying their own moral codes in this home-invasion chiller-turned-warped buddy road tale-turned-biblical Western set in East Texas, 1989.
Michael C. Hall plays picture-frame merchant and family man Richard Dane. Nervous on the trigger of the gun he keeps in the home he shares with his wife (Vinessa Shaw) and young son (Brogan Hall), Richard shoots and unintentionally kills an intruder.
The sheriff (played by Damici) identifies the victim as a wanted felon, and soon the dead man’s revenge-bent ex-con dad, Ben (Sam Shepard), begins terrorizing Richard’s family.
But though a nasty dude, Ben is a grieving father, and when a plot twist reveals that authorities have covered up key factors in the home-invasion killing, he teams up with the guilt-ridden Richard to investigate.
Colorful gumshoe Jim Bob (Don Johnson), a grizzled cowboy with a red convertible and a pig farm, joins the pair.
Navigating treacherous terrain, the men discover sickening doings. Knowing that police won’t get involved, they decide to impose justice of an extreme, frontier sort.
The film does nothing strikingly original with the themes of male aggression and the cycle of violence. Its depiction of our species’ baser aspects, and of ingrained violence in society, pales next to that of the Coens and David Cronenberg.
But as B-noir thrill rides go, this is inspired stuff, streaked with humor and sporting an impressive IQ. Limiting plot twists to a few efficient jolts, Mickle, a solid, fluid storyteller, generates constant tension.
Genre love and retro style add to the appeal. Jeff Grace’s original music was inspired by the synth scores of John Carpenter’s films. Slow-motion moments recall Peckinpah.
Artful visuals — the blood on Richard’s living-room wall suggests an abstract drip painting — enhance the picture.
The performances, in tune with Mickle’s mode of combining juice with nuance, supply emotional heat while continually revealing interesting shades in the characters.
Hall (the vigilante on “Dexter”) anchors the film, in a noir vein, as a respectable soul dragged by circumstance into a swamp of unsavoriness. The emboldened quality Richard displays after turning vigilante is designed as pulpy fun but is also disturbing.
Shepard, whose Ben instigates the bloody climax, mixes menace and anguish stirringly. Johnson’s barely hinged Jim Bob, providing guidance through the morass, plus comic relief, is a kick. Their off-kilter buddy camaraderie seals the movie’s status as a satisfying ticket.
Cold in July
Starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw
Written by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici
Directed by Jim Mickle
Running time 1 hour, 49 minutes