A small-town hero discovers his dark side in Jim Mickle's pulpy 'Cold in July'
What happens next is best left a surprise, though it does involve Don Johnson as a flamboyant, convertible-driving pig farmer; plenty more bloodshed; a meeting at a drive-in that just happens to be screening Night of the Living Dead (1968); and the line "You don't wanna fuck with the Dixie Mafia." Throughout, Cold in July expertly works its 1980s setting as both homage to and embodiment of the era's gritty thrillers; its synth-heavy score and neo-noir lensing (by frequent Mickle collaborators Jeff Grace and Ryan Samul, respectively) and the casting of Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt; he was also in We Are What We Are) in a key role add to the feeling that Cold in July was crafted after much time spent in the church of St. John Carpenter. There's humor, too, deployed with careful timing that doesn't compromise the slow-burning tension that builds throughout — as when Richard celebrates some good news by headbanging to period-perfect power rock in his enormous, wood-paneled station wagon.
Most intriguingly, and for all its retro trappings, Cold in July offers a very modern exploration of masculinity via all of its leads, though Richard is obviously the embodiment of this theme. "I've been waiting for something big like this," he says to his wife before slithering away on a secret road trip (she thinks he's talking about landing an important new client). Unlike Viggo Mortensen's secret gangster in 2005's A History of Violence, which begins with a similar premise (family guy shoots someone in self-defense, opening a can of worms in the process), Richard has zero past aggression to draw on; dude's got a history of mildness — with a heretoforth untapped curiosity about the wilder side of life awakened by a sudden bloody act. Once again, Mickle has delivered an unfuck-with-able film. Can't wait to see what he does next. *
COLD IN JULY opens Fri/30 in Bay Area theaters.