Thursday, July 23, 2015

In short: Cold in July (2014)

The life of peaceful Texan family man Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) is turned upside down when he shoots an unarmed burglar in a moment of panic. This being Texas and all, the law doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with that – in fact, much less of a problem than Richard’s conscience has – but the burglar’s ex-con father Russell (Sam Shepard) is a bit of a different case.

Russell performs the expected threatening postures, and he’s clearly out for revenge but the situation will turn out to be quite a bit different from the semi-remake of Cape Fear one might now expect.

And that’s pretty much the point where Jim Mickle’s film turns out to be much more interesting and worthwhile than the extremely competent but unsurprising film it seems to set itself up as initially. It’s also just the first time the plot takes a turn into an unexpected and more interesting direction, always executed without the carnival huckster gestures of the twist-based movie but with a naturalness and matter-of-factness that can’t be easy to pull off, particularly not when played for a genre-savvy audience. It’s not as if each single element of the plot were terribly original in itself – in fact we’ve seen all these elements before in different films – but the way Mickle’s and his usual writing partner’s Nick Damici’s script (and I suppose the Joe R. Lansdale novel the script is based on) put these well-worn elements together feels new and fresh, and Mickle’s direction (working inside the 80s influenced not really retro style that’s popular right now, I suspect in part as a reaction against all movies being yellow and washed out) provides an unshowy and flawless drive to the proceedings. 

At the same time, the film is highly character-based with even the plot’s more dubious moments, as well as the characters’ many ethically questionable decisions, developed as natural results of what these characters here are, or are in the process of becoming. While this is a vigilante movie of a kind, it is, pleasantly, not one that wants or does preach the beauty of taking the law into one’s own hand; as a matter of fact, the film isn’t interested in asking ethical questions in an abstract way but rather in showing what these particular characters do when confronted with their specific ethical problems; and what these characters do isn’t meant to be a manual for the audience’s own lives.

The actors involved here are of course a huge part of this effect, with Hall (who to my eyes is one of the greats right now) and Shepard going the more naturalistic route they’re so damn good at, while Don Johnson uses the larger than life approach that has served him quite well in the last few years. Somehow, these very different acting approaches gel excellently too.

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