Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) owns a picture frame store in Jim Mickle’s Cold in July. It’s the sort of narrative device that conveys two separate ideals: it establishes Dane as an everyman and serves as a cogent thematic example of his purpose to the picture’s grand narrative. Cold in July may suggest that Dane is the central protagonist - and to a degree, he is - but the picture emphasizes Dane as the man who contains the impending chaos, serving as a vessel, a herder, and an ever-expanding boundary for how one contends with maintaining moral integrity.
Cold in July fixates on a traditional Western trope of the moral dilemma involved with the innocent man who pulls the trigger. This situation is moved to East Texas in 1989 where Dane subdues a home intruder: Dane’s trembling finger slipped and slays the intruder who with a headshot. The details surrounding the killing enter the public, which prompts the arrival of the father of the slain. The situation directly recalls something like David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, though that film’s subtext is largely absent. Rather, Cold in July is a particularly grating plot-y film that hopes to engage its audience by perpetually upping the moral decay of its characters and situations, starting with crooked cops and ending in a snuff film-producing warehouse.
Mickel owes a great deal of gratitude to the works of Michael Mann and Sam Peckinpah, as the vision of violence he captures bares a striking resemblance to films like Thief and Straw Dogs. But the problem here is that he relies on these influences as a crutch, reflecting on them as homage but never deploying them as a necessary part of the film’s structure. The narrative shift that’s used halfway through the film is an interesting deviation, but it’s hard to deem it an accomplishment; side characters like Don Johnson’s Jim Bob are afforded little material besides annoyingly emphasizing the picture’s setting.
The film is essentially an interesting curio-piece. There are tiny details to the picture that suggest more than what’s on the surface, with the jarring transition from an everyman neutralizing a threat to the larger vigilante father/son narrative that underscore the need to reappraise how Cold in July is composed. But the louder aspects of the film - the hyper-violence, the strained triad relationship between Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, and Sam Shepard, and the absent familial aspect in the second half of the picture - all negatively resonate over whatever positives might linger.