Whatever the thriller “Cold in July” sets out to be, it becomes something significantly different the moment Don Johnson shows up.
What starts out as a grim survive-a-criminal’s-vengeance tale, a slice of early ’80s Texas Gothic, develops a swagger the moment ol’ Don strolls in — all cowboy books, ragtop Cadillac and Southern-fried private eye. He’s the kind of gunslinger who shows up in the middle of the Western, figures he makes the odds more even, but sure as shootin’ isn’t suicidal.
“Lotta cowboys down there,” he drawls as the “good” guys steel themselves for the big showdown with the bad guys. “You wanna rethink your math?”
“Cold in July” opens with a home invasion in which a timid framing shop owner (Michael C. Hall) shoots and kills a hooded intruder in small-town 1980s Texas. But there’s something a little off in the way the town and the cops respond. And not all of this can be attributed to “Well, it’s Texas.”
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Even the postman is all backslaps and bravado: “I hear you gotcha one last night.”
Richard (Hall) is bugged by all this, rattled by every sudden noise. He knows the dude the cops said he shot has a daddy, a mean one with a prison record. And stumbling into old man Russel (Sam Shepard) as the county summarily puts the dead intruder in the ground just sets Russel off. He is all vague suggestions of this, veiled threats about that.
Next thing you know, Richard, his wife (Vinessa Shaw) and young son are under police protection, which promises to be no protection at all from a cunning killer with blood feud tendencies.
It’s about here that Richard starts to wonder just who it was he shot in his house, just what Russel knows or doesn’t know, and just what the cops are up to in luring Russel into stalking him.
Something more sinister is afoot, and meek Richard is drawn into an ugly underworld.
Indie filmmaker Jim Mickle has a hard time with tone here, jolting us from weak suspense to harrowing action to comic interlude and bloodbath finale. He stops the movie with each tone shift, fatal to any thriller.
“Cold in July” is another of those seemingly pointless period pieces. Setting it 30 years ago lets the older guys pass themselves off as fellow Korean War vets and gives the production the excuse to use VCRs and lots of rattletrap late ’70s cars. Otherwise, Texas is Texas.
This is Southern Gothic that harks more to “Walking Tall” than William Faulkner, and it turns out that is alternately too ambitious and not nearly ambitious enough.