Cold in July ✮✮✮

The Death Wish 3

by Glenn Lovell

The best way to approach Jim Mickle’s “Cold in July” is cold, as in knowing nothing about it going in but the title. No preconceived notions. Nada. That’s how I came to this East Texas mystery-crime saga taken from a novel by Joe R. Lansdale. And my ignorance paid off. Mickle played me like a champion angler landing a happily exhausted tuna.

And that’s a good thing.

If you want to have a similar experience, stop reading here. And come back to this review after you’ve seen this endlessly surprising pulp thriller (now available VOD).

A mustachioed Michael C. Hall of “Dexter” fame plays Richard Dane, a sheepish husband who makes his living operating a frame shop. Remember that word ‒ at least one character will be framed for a crime he didn’t commit.

Director Mickle (“Stake Land”) doesn’t waste a minute. He opens with Dane and his wife (Vinessa Shaw) being awakened by a burglcoldar. “There’s someone in the house,” she whispers. Dane goes to the closet and, his hands shaking, pulls down a box containing his father’s pistol. He confronts the young hooded intruder and the gun discharges, spraying blood and brains over the wall.

The cops applaud Dane’s stand-your-ground tenacity. “My finger slipped,” he protests. The chief of police (Mick Damici, who also co-scripted) isn’t having any of this false modesty. “Sometimes the good guys win,” he reassures the man many locals have written off as a coward.

Though obviously disturbed by the violence he has wrought, Dane begins to enjoy his new image — until Ben Russel (Sam Shepard), the burglar’s ex-con father, comes a-callin’.

Squirming but well and truly hooked, I figured I was in the presence of another variation on “Cape Fear,” with Hall playing the smugly superior father to Shepard’s psychotic Max Cady. Also, I was reminded of the David Cronenberg nail-biter “A History of Violence.”

But then Mickle and Damici (taking their cue from Lansdale) pull the rug out from under us, repeatedly. Nothing is as it seems. Dane realizes that he and his family have been used as pawns in what amounts to a police conspiracy. Now the question becomes: Will the meek shop owner step up and set things right?

“Cold in July” is easily the squirreliest crime drama since Brad Pitt’s gritty, anachronistic “Killing Them Softly.” It’s edgy, suspenseful, cathartic. Mickle knows his Scorsese: The climactic shootout is almost as bloody and cinematically audacious as the brothel massacre in “Taxi Driver,” an obvious influence.

But it’s not the violence that lingers, it’s the juicy, one-off performances by Hall and Shepard, who, besides writing some of his lines, has his meatiest role in I don’t know how long. (Let’s see a show of hands from those tired of Shepard playing characters with one foot in the grave.) And as a bonus we get Don Johnson as a good ol’ boy pig farmer-private eye who goes by the moniker Texas Red.

Like I said, this one is unexpected.

COLD IN JULY ✮✮✮ With Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw. Directed by Jim Mickle; scripted by Mick Damici, Mickle from a now by Joe R. Lansdale.

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