Jim Mickle’s violent black comedy Cold in July begins with a suburban family man (Michael C. Hall) confronting and then fatally shooting a burglar who’s broken into his home. The movie takes place in 1989 in east Texas, and the local sheriff who investigates the shooting writes it off as self-defense. Unfortunately for the man who pulled the trigger, Richard Dane, the burglar’s father is a hotheaded killer just released from prison; after getting word of the incident, ex-con Ben Russel comes to town and starts terrorizing Dane’s family. Watching Cold in July unfold, I was continually reminded of work by two other artists: John Carpenter, the director of such horror and sci-fi classics as Halloween (1978) and They Live (1988), and Sam Shepard, the longtime actor and playwright who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1979 drama Buried Child. This is a shotgun marriage, to be sure, but it works.
The movie’s indebtedness to Carpenter is apparent from the very beginning: there are the same tidy wide-screen compositions, the same minimalist, synth-driven score, even the same font that Carpenter used for the credits in several of his 1980s films. As the conflict between Dane and Russel takes shape, the influence of Carpenter’s 80s work almost suffocates the film, which begins to suggest a remake of Halloween by way of Fargo and Cape Fear. Shepard’s influence isn’t as obvious, but it plays a more important role in shaping the movie’s tone and thematic content. Once he appears onscreen, Cold in July turns into a different movie—a less predictable, more invigorating one.
This may be Shepard’s best performance since he played pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983); he’s so commanding as Russel that he manages to cast his own literary spell over the film. The script is credited to Mickle and his frequent collaborator Nick Damici (who also plays the sheriff), yet Mickle recently told the website Daily Actor that during production he encouraged Shepard to ad lib and even rewrite some scenes. Ceding control of the script to a dramatist of Shepard’s stature was the smartest decision Mickle could have made; the hypermasculine characters wouldn’t be out of place in Shepard’s True West or Geography of a Horse Dreamer, and their dialogue is redolent of Shepard’s literary voice—part American tough-guy talk, part Pinteresque minimalism. Mickle introduces Russel as a towering presence, bearing down on the guilt-ridden Dane as he spies on the son’s burial from inside his car. “So you’re watching them put shit in the hole,” says Russel. There’s a pause. “Very Christian of you.” As in Shepard’s plays, the character’s dialogue pushes hard-boiled cliches to the edge of absurdity.
If you haven’t seen Cold in July, you might want to stop reading here, because Russel isn’t the villain after all. When Dane begins to explore the life of his victim, he finds an old rap sheet with a photo that looks nothing like the man he killed. The police stonewall him, and after Russel is apprehended, they declare the case closed. Dane trails them one night as they’re transferring Russel to another lockup, and to his surprise the cops drug Russel and leave him on a train track to die. Dane rescues the old man and takes him to a cabin in the woods; when Russel awakens, Dane proposes they team up to learn what really happened to his son.
Uneasy alliances are a common motif in Shepard’s writing, and the two men take on a third partner when Russel recruits his old war buddy Jim Bob, a pig-farming private detective who favors gaudy cowboy outfits (played by Don Johnson in a scene-stealing performance). Together the men discover that the son has entered a witness protection program after leading the FBI to key players in the east Texas underworld, and that in his new life he’s been making snuff films in which he beats Mexican prostitutes to death with a baseball bat. Ashamed of this, Russel decides to hunt down his own son and kill him, and Dane, secretly enamored of the old man’s outlaw code of honor, offers to help. From this point the father-and-son relationship begins to evoke the broken families Shepard wrote about in Buried Child, True West, and his screenplay for Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas.
The movie’s novel mashup of Shepard and Carpenter reveals how much these two artists have in common. Both are minimalists, and both draw on the cultural touchstones of the 1950s—for Shepard, film noir and the poetry of the beat generation; for Carpenter, Rebel Without a Cause, with its wide-screen photography, and such Howard Hawks classics as The Thing and Rio Bravo. Even more importantly, both men use these cultural allusions to consider the death of American mythology in the postwar era of mass media and suburbanization.
Mickle and Damici are no strangers to this idea: their previous two features, Stake Land and We Are What We Are, were affectionate pastiches of 70s genre filmmaking that also lamented the decline of the American heartland. Initially the late-80s setting of Cold in July registers as kitsch, but it grows more evocative as the Carpenter impersonation gives way to something weirder and uglier. A key detail here is that Dane owns a small picture-framing business, the sort of livelihood that ensured a stable, middle-class existence back then but has become exceedingly vulnerable in the new century. His unexpected descent into chaos and violence makes for a potent metaphor, one that both Shepard and Carpenter might well applaud.