Saturday, May 24, 2014


I collected comic books when I was a kid. I remember being thrilled one summer when my aunt Carla returned from a trip to Brazil with an armful of South American comics for me. I  remember them being garish, gaudy things, bursting with vibrant color. Jim Mickle's Cold in July reminded me of those South American comics, for cinematographer Ryan Samul shoots this Texas crime thriller with enough fiery yellows and piss greens that the effect is like stepping into the gaudiest of post cards. It's a masterpiece of photography, with light hitting characters in unexpected ways. A man steps into a shadow, for instance, and rather than going into darkness, he turns a pale blue. Granted, such effects aren't new,  but Samul shoots with such joy and relentless ingenuity that the picture owes its life to him. 

Michael C. Hall plays Richard Dane, an unimposing frame shop owner who wakes up one night to hear an intruder in his home. Dane wanders into his dark living room with a pistol and kills the burglar, who turns out to be the son of a sinister ex-convict named Russell (Sam Shepard).  From this starting point, the movie turns into a sort of Cape Fear knockoff as Russell stalks the Dane household. Russell is caught by the police, but just when it seems the story is being resolved, Dane visits the police station and sees a wanted poster for the fellow who had broken into his home. To his shock, the man on the poster doesn't resemble the man he killed. Later, Dane happens across an ugly scene on a railroad track where local cops are pummeling Russell and leaving him to die under an approaching train. Dane rescues Russell, and they gradually realize they've been involved in a setup. 

The remainder of the movie, which is based on a story by pulp novelist Joe R. Lansdale,  takes Dane and Russell into a nasty underworld of corrupt officials, the Dixie Mafia, pig farmers, snuff films, and perverts. There's plenty of violence, a lot of macho posturing, and enough blood on the walls to satisfy a certain type of movie lover. It packs a wallop.

It isn't perfect by any means. Mickle has a taste for cliches, everything from the good guys walking in slow motion, their rifles resting on their shoulders, to unfunny banter that would be better suited to a cheap buddy picture.  The world of snuff films, as depicted here, also seems highly unlikely.  Not only are the films ridiculous - we see a clip of one where an unsuspecting woman is beaten to death with a baseball bat - but one of the movie's goons simply travels around with a bunch of snuff tapes in the trunk of his car. Also, the makers of the snuff films run a  video rental store as a front for their activities, which also seems highly unlikely. Maybe all of those now defunct Blockbuster stores used to have a secret room full of snuff titles, but I doubt it.

Lansdale is known for novels that are excessively violent but seasoned with redneck humor and heavy doses of stoic male bonding. I'm not familiar with the novel this movie is based on, but I've read some of Lansdale's other stories. In Lansdale's world, men who kill together bond in ways that us non-killers can't fathom, and your best pal might emphasize a point by sticking a gun barrel in your ear. The villains in a Lansdale book are usually involved in horrid, modern crimes (like snuff movies), but are so cartoonish they may as well wear handlebar mustaches and black stetsons. It can be a bit much, but one accepts it as the world Lansdale creates. 

The movie touches on a lot of Lansdale's fetishes, including bright red Cadillacs with horn racks, Texas kitsch, lonesome roadside diners, and of course, drive-ins. In a scene that feels alarmingly arbitrary, Dane and Russell meet a private eye (Don Johnson) at a drive-in theater that happens to be showing Night of the Living Dead.  As they discuss their plans, they munch popcorn and watch the zombies. Was there a reason for them to meet there, other than Lansdale's passion for drive-ins? Still, Mickle is loyal to Lansdale's vision, and maintains Lansdale's occasionally broad humor without veering too far from the dramatic. I especially liked how a fight between Johnson and a giant Mexican thug started out as slapstick but quickly turned into horrific violence. This is smart because too much comedy wouldn't support the movie's grim climax.

Hall overplays the guilt after killing the intruder, but becomes more watchable as the movie progresses. Johnson is acceptable as the pig farmer turned private eye, playing the sort of lovable dirtbag he's played many times. Lansdale's cult of readers will recognize in Johnson an archetype from his novels, the crusty good ol' boy who complains about being called to action, but is pretty handy when it's time to cut someone's throat.  Still, it's Sam Shepard who walks away with the movie.

Shepard is outstanding as Russell. He's menacing early on, but gradually reveals more depth to his character until he nearly breaks your heart.  He may be the ultimate Lansdale actor, leaking lines of dialog from the corner of his mouth, never breaking a sweat, brutish on the outside but hurting on the inside. Shepard is primarily a writer who only acts as a side gig, which makes his performance here all the more fascinating. As a playwright, Shepard has often written about estranged fathers and sons, which could be what attracted him to the character of Russell, a man who hasn't seen his son in years. Shepard has been one of our most reliable character actors for nearly four decades, but this is his  best work since he played Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.   

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