Review: ‘Cold in July’ is One of the Most Impressive Films of the Year

By June 2, 2014
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Before one tries to call a film “one of the best neo-noirs of the past two decades,” they should briefly explain what the term means. In a nutshell, “neo-noir” means “exactly like an official film noir, only it was made after the mid-1950s.” Call it whatever you like; the elements of “noir” remain the same: a man becomes embroiled / trapped within in a crime-related story, one that ignores the typical “good vs. evil” tropes and delves into the grayer areas of morality. In keeping with themes often found in film noir (paranoia, alienation, ambiguity), these movies are often shot with sharp angles, a noted lack of color, and a firm affection for moody shadows.

So with all that surface-level film noir 101 material out of the way, I feel confident calling Jim Mickle’s Cold in July one of the best neo-noir thrillers of the past two decades. One could spend pages cataloging the components that fire on all cylinders: Jeff Grace’s ominous yet playfully ’80s-esque score; Ryan Samul’s gorgeous cinematography; the masterfully crisp editing from the director and John Horstmann; the small yet flawless ensemble; the very crafty screenplay, etc.

Based on the novel by Joe Lansdale (and adapted by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici), Cold in July is about an anonymous family man (Michael C. Hall) who kills a burglar, only it turns out that the intruder’s nefarious father (Sam Shepard) was just released from prison. And obviously this is not a happy dad.

Cold in July 2

So while Cold in July starts out feeling a bit like Cape Fear, with the creepy Shepard harassing the frustrated Hall, that’s only the early set-up. Suffice to say that things get a lot more involved than basic revenge. Pretty soon we’re knee-deep in dirty cops (Damici) and colorful detectives (a fantastic Don Johnson), and while Cold in July takes some clever twists and turns, it never becomes ponderous, predictable, or sloppy.

Like I said, virtually everyone who worked on this one was playing at the top of his/her game, but specific kudos to the director who has gone from small (Mulberry St.) to medium (Stake Land) to excellent (We Are What We Are) in the horror department while honing his skills for most accomplished work to date. And while Cold in July is not a horror film, it does offer suspense, tension, and some extremely dark surprises that a fan of the scary stuff will certainly appreciate.

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As a neo-noir “throwback” film, Cold in July is all sorts of fun for the hardcore movie buffs. Like John Dahl’s The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, or Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Only God Forgives, it not only evokes the twisted morality plays of 1940s pulp cinema; it pays them a very sincere compliment. There will always be a place for plain, simple “black & white” heroes and villains, but the coolest crime stories are the ones that manage an astute balancing act between good/evil, right/wrong, and revenge/justice. And the three leads — Hall, Shepard, and Johnson — simply shine, either separately or when they’re on screen together. These are not just good performances; these are quality actors savoring some excellent dialogue.

Cold in July is not just a solid indie flick or a strong adaptation of a well-regarded novel. It’s one of the most surprisingly impressive films of the year, and one that film fans will enjoy “discovering” for the next several years.

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Scott Weinberg
Writer. Movie critic. Producer. Semi-actor. Wise-ass. Film advocate. Horror geek. Cat fan. Twitter junkie. Follow me at @scotteweinberg.