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To say that Cold in July is violent would be an understatement—the film, starring Michael C. Hall (sporting a mullet, in case you couldn’t tell it’s the ’80s), even outdoes the extensive arterial blood spatter his character analyzes, or causes, in Dexter. Hall plays Richard Dane, an ordinary, small-town family man in East Texas who’s drawn into a dark underworld of crooked cops, the Dixie mafia, and Don Johnson. But while the film sets out to be a somber, brooding character study of the cold nature lurking within all of us, it ends up turning into a disorganized bloodbath.
The film starts, literally, with a bang. After being awoken in the middle of the night, Dane scrambles to defend his family from a home intruder. In a tense and nervous confrontation with the assailant, he loses his tenuous grasp on the trigger—and the living room wall gets repainted. This abrupt, violent opening scene makes us wonder: Who was the intruder? Does he, too, have a family? How will they react? There’s also the question of redecorating.
A police investigation follows, and a menacing ex-con (Sam Shepard) drives a suspenseful cat-and-mouse chase with Dane. But just as an intriguing mystery surfaces, Don Johnson arrives in a red convertible, and there’s a sharp shift in tone. While Johnson’s PI, Jim Bob, injects the film with energy and wit, even he can’t mitigate a boilerplate vigilante revenge plot that ups the body count at the expense of story and character. The film’s none-too-subtle ’80s references—a jarring, synth-heavy score; jokes about antiquated cell phones—prove heavy-handed. But these annoying flaws pale in comparison to the film’s most egregious shortcoming: The narrative never questions how Dane’s moral compass (or those of any of these reprehensible characters) veers so far off course.
In both his previous film, We Are What We Are, and Cold in July, director Jim Mickle attempts to build tension with macabre and twisted scenarios, leading toward a climactic, violent showdown. The former has more success. Its story centers around the Parkers, a seemingly wholesome and benevolent family that harbors a dark secret tied to religious and ancestral custom, drawing disparate elements—family, religion, nature—together in a sustained exercise in suspense. Parker patriarch Frank (Bill Sage), a man burdened by the past, anchors the central conflict: a struggle to preserve his own history. But while Cold in July sets up the stakes, it fails to develop any of them in a disjointed narrative plagued by rote characterization.
While they belong to different genres—We Are What We Are falls under horror, Cold in July is neo-noir—both films conclude with a bloody crescendo. In the former, the violence has a message: that the souring of rigid, religious faith leads to horrific consequences like, say, cannibalistic acts of murder. The latter leaves a trail of corpses in its wake without any insight into the human condition. It’s nothing more than a bloody mess.