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COLD IN JULY… Lansdale’s gritty rural noir is destined to become a cult sleeper

Posted on September 8th, 2014
Posted on September 8th, 2014

by Coop Cooper

Cold in July” fills a genre niche that’s rare in the modern world. Gritty, rural thrillers are few and far between but there have been some notable ones in the recent past. “No Country for Old Men” and “Winter’s Bone” come to mind but this is the first time pulp novelist Joe R. Lansdale has contributed to it in the cinematic sense. Known mostly for his horror fiction and pulp crime novels, Lansdale has developed a cult following over the decades and has now crossed-over into the crime cinema genre aided by iconic horror director Jim Mickle and actor/screenwriter Nick Damici.

In 1980’s rural Texas, mild-mannered frame store owner Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) awakens in the middle of the night to find a masked intruder in his home. To protect his family, he shoots and kills the intruder. The local sheriff (Nick Damici) assures Richard the shooting was clean and that he did the right thing. As Richard and his family attempt to return to normal, the intruder’s father, Russel (Sam Shepard), recently released from prison, begins stalking and threatening Richard. Amidst this dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, Richard uncovers a web of deception with the aid of the flashy, charismatic private eye/pig farmer Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson). They uncover a horrible truth and must travel a dark path with Russel to put a stop to an evil that is worse than all of them.

While “Cape Fear” was undoubtedly the inspiration for the original novel, Lansdale puts his own twisted spin on the story, blurring the lines between good and bad guys. Just when you think you understand what is going on, the story throws you for a loop and suddenly the motives of the characters change in unexpected ways. This results in story that is both complex and satisfying.

Lansdale is better known to film fans for his horror, particularly for a cult film he wrote named “Bubba Ho-Tep” in which an elderly, ailing Elvis – who faked his death – teams up with JFK – whose brain was transplanted into an old African American man – to defeat an evil mummy who is harvesting the souls of seniors at their Texas nursing home. It’s a silly, yet creative and fun movie, much different than some of the serious and demented stories he writes… As you can tell, I’m a big fan.

Likewise with director Jim Mickle who, along with screenwriting partner Nick Damici, made the rodent-spawned zombie film “Mulberry St.”, the critically-acclaimed post-apocalyptic vampire film “Stake Land” and the melancholy cannibal drama “We Are What We Are”. It would appear that Mickle and Damici will team up with Lansdale again next year by adapting his infamous “Hap and Leonard” detective novels into a cable TV series.

As far as performances, Michael C. Hall is the weak-link of the film only because his more talented co-stars, Shepherd and Johnson, overshadow him. Additionally, his mullet and bushy mustache are so distracting, I never fully got past them over the course of the film, but by the end, Hall more than proves his worth as the lead. Shepherd plays his part with as few lines of dialogue as possible but his non-verbal performance overwhelms the others, making every word he says both meaningful and menacing. Don Johnson steals the entire show as Jim Bob Luke. His career as a pig farmer is in stark contrast to his swaggering Texas P.I. personality with the fancy clothes and bright red Cadillac. He is such a rich character, I would relish seeing him in more films (played by Johnson, of course)… and that might be a possibility. Apparently Jim Bob Luke appeared in some of Lansdale’s “Hap and Leonard” novels and I’ll wager Johnson has a deal to appear on the upcoming TV series. His return with definitely be something to look forward to.

The film has a couple of plot holes and bad character choices but the overall film works like gangbusters. Mickle must’ve been inspired by the style of films like “Thief” (1981) and “Drive” (2011) because he uses 80’s-styled synthesizer music to score the film and even throws in an 80’s rock song or two (ex. “Wait” by White Lion) for effect.

Fans of those movies, and especially “No Country for Old Men”, owe it to themselves to check out “Cold in July”. It had a limited theatrical run back in May but will be available on DVD on September 30th. I recommend watching the trailer for it on YouTube to get primed for it. It’s already one of my favorites of the year.

Rating: 4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

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