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The Movies That Shaped Me - Cold in July (2014)


“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” - John Dalberg-Acton

I’m going to be talking about story details from the movie Cold in July. This is your...


Oftentimes when we think of what has shaped us we tend to think of things from our youth. But I believe that implies that at some point we stop growing as humans. Physically I’m as tall as I’ll ever be but I’d like to think I’m still developing my emotions, opinions, and overall way of thinking in a way that is progressive and beneficial. Then again I have the maturity of a five year-old (or so I’m told) so I don’t really know what I’m getting at here. 

I guess what I’m saying is that despite facing the imminence of my thirty-fifth birthday (I almost threw up typing that) my tastes of the things I love or thought I hated are still finding ways of surprising me. When it comes to movies I thought I had reached the limits of what I did and didn’t like. It happened around 2013, 2014 when I had what I like to call a cinematic awakening discovering my appreciation for the more avant-garde side of visual storytelling. I will always love the Face-Offs and Point Breaks but now, thanks to a specific few films (Enemy, It Follows, 2001: a space odyssey, The Babadook, Under the Skin) I’m able to enjoy and anticipate movies like The Green Knight, Hereditary, and It Comes at Night to name a few.

In the spirit of celebrating the movies I’m still being shaped by, I wanted to dissect the horribly underrated, pulpy crime thriller, Jim Mickle’s Cold in July

While it had its premiere in 2014, I didn’t discover it until late 2015. It was airing for the first time on Showtime one evening when I caught an advertisement for it hours before its debut. I thought it looked interesting and it stars Michael C. Hall just a couple years after his massive role as the serial killer-killer, Dexter. I was a fan of the show so I wanted to see Hall in a role outside of his sociopathic tendencies. Cold in July was directed by Jim Mickle who just a couple of years prior made the disturbingly visceral cannibal horror film, We Are What We Are. I was a fan so with a strong cast and director, Cold in July felt like a given. I couldn’t have anticipated what was in store for me. Today it is one of my favorite thrillers with a top ten musical score carrying an already insane carnival ride to new heights. 

Cold in July tells the story of an unassuming man, a loyal husband and loving father to a little boy. Dane works in a rural town in 1980’s Texas as a picture framer. As content as Dane may be, life is about to become complicated in ways he never could have anticipated if he had a thousand years to predict what was coming his way. It all starts with Dane, his wife, Ann and their little boy peacefully sleeping in their family home in the middle of the night. They are startled awake by a sound coming from the family room. Dane, armed with a revolver (and a bold hairstyle), sneaks to the edge of his living room to discover a masked man searching their home with a flashlight. Scared and tense, Dane accidentally fires a single shot striking the man in the head, killing him instantly. 

Shortly after police arrive it’s immediately obvious this is an open and shut case and comforts him with the knowledge that everything should be okay and that he was within his rights to defend himself and his family. After the initial shock and clean up, Dane and his wife attempt to move on. If only it were so easy. What transpires from a seemingly random B&E unravels into a hurricane of false identities, the Dixie Mafia, serial rapists and murder rings horrifically all caught on VHS for the right kind of buyers. It is a nightmare that refuses to allow its dreamers to wake up from its unbearable grasp. Caught in the whirlwind is Dane, his newfound “friends” Russel and Jim Bob and the group of soulless perpetrators whose acts of abhorrence are truly unspeakable and have seemingly gone unnoticed in their crime spree that has destroyed an untold amount of victims. 

Dane, Russel, and Jim Bob, looking for a specific person, unexpectedly discover these acts being committed and that those carrying out these things are closer to home than they could have ever imagined. Not being able to turn to law enforcement for reasons established early on in their story, the trio take it upon themselves to deliver a heaping of down south justice and to end this madness once and for all. Their journey is one of indescribable discovery, visceral violent deliverance, and a climax that will alter their very core for the rest of their days. 

As much as I enjoy Michael C. Hall, his post-Dexter performances have been a bit wanting. While he isn’t bad by any means as Dane, he is by far the least interesting character standing with the likes of the stoic and intimidating Russel played quietly but menacingly by Sam Shepard. On the other side is Jim Bob, played wildly and oftentimes hilariously by Don Johnson who is just as emphatically savage as Russel just with a bit more swagger and tenacity. With Jim Bob and Russel’s military history and Dane’s determination to find out why this landed at his own doorstep, this highly unlikely triumvirate team up and raise hell for those who long believed they could maneuver without consequence.

Sam Shepard’s Russel is the most interesting character of the three but he is the least known, rarely choosing to speak up unless absolutely necessary. His limited facial expressions, despite his best efforts, scream of past experiences that were most likely the reason for his quiet nature, leaving him believing the world he once fought for wasn’t worth the effort or sacrifice. He is generally disgusted with those around him and when this devastating occurrence shatters his quiet existence it only emboldens his pessimistic world view. Sam Shepard is brilliant as Russel, a man he portrays with such a quiet intensity and hints of hopeful reunification with long lost family only to once again be cut off at the knees for what will probably be the final time. His walls go up never coming down ever again. And that should worry certain people he’ll inevitably encounter along his newfound path. 

Don Johnson as Jim Bob creates a wonderfully entertaining, colorful character that is clearly damaged like Russel but hasn’t allowed the shadows of his past darken his present and hopeful future. Despite his seemingly good natured personality, Jim Bob possesses a ferocity that carries him through some of his darkest moments unfortunately still ahead of him and pacing threateningly awaiting his arrival. Don Johnson performs as the good ol’ boy with guns and ammunition for just the right occasion. That occasion is Dane and this random breaking and entering turned into a murderous crime ring.

Hall as Dane may be the least interesting of the lead three, that doesn’t mean he isn’t extremely important to the story. He acts as the vessel through which we as the surveyors watch how a mild-mannered father and husband navigates the darkest recesses of man’s most detestable desires. It’s through him that it also poses the idea of having an exit as an option to get off this scary-go-round. Do you take that option and leave behind such ugliness? It goes on to remind us that leaving it behind means abandoning the victims whose only hope of anything even resembling justice may have been you or in this case Dane, Russel and Jim Bob. His lack of understanding that such a world could possibly exist drives his curiosity but more than that his newfound sense of justice. Michael C. Hall delivers a performance reminiscent of a deer in headlights. In this case the car misses the deer and the driver offers the deer a handgun and an opportunity to go after the hunters that killed its family.    

The musical score, by Jeff Grace takes the fascinating premise of three revenge-fueled men hellbent on southern justice and makes it something else far more memorable. It is an electronic mystery machine replete with 80’s inspired electronica that takes the imagery of foggy, abandoned roadways and dated Plymouths to a place of eerie secrets aching to be found. It screams of imminent malevolence and forthcoming danger but hopes that someone will come along to face the hidden horrors standing behind its keyboard ambiance always seeming to culminate in a pile of blood and violence. It feels as if something is always coming, not so much arriving as it is impending. Much in the same way you wouldn’t describe a family member who’s visiting for the weekend as imminent, you wouldn’t describe evil as just around the corner. 

The cinematography seems to take joy in isolating its characters. Never at any point does it feel like an option for these three men to turn to authorities for help. As flashing red and blue lights fill the dimly lit rooms of a family home or a heavily forested backyard or overrun tracks under an isolated train tunnel, what should be a sign of help arriving feels more like a vile secret on the verge of being unearthed and the local police department refusing let such a thing happen. The deep, focused colors of red, blue or green darken the area surrounding the characters, forcing them to focus their gaze on only that which is in front of them. Even, or especially, if what’s in front of them is horrifying. 

Cold in July is indulgent. It has an insatiable appetite for bloody violence and justifies it by creating the most deplorable villains imaginable. Of course these people would meet such a brutal end considering the lives they’ve led. The best thing it does in regards to the evil depicted in this story is finding the line between disgusting and comically evil and tows that line with an amazing amount of grace. The level of their wicked deeds feels otherworldly only because normal people like you and I could never fathom treating another human being in such a manner, nevermind doing it to potentially hundreds of people. But anyone who wasn’t born yesterday knows that despite such acts feeling so far away they are unfortunately never far enough. In fact as we go along with the three leads we learn that sometimes the horridness is far too close for comfort. In the case of Dane and Russel it’s so close they discover it under their own roofs, so to speak. 

If you enjoy an exploration of the darker side of human behavior and finding the justice for it at all costs, Cold in July is your kind of thriller. It has the potential to leave you feeling unclean even if its conclusion does provide at least some catharsis. It never lets you forget that even if these, for lack of a better word, heroes (anti-heroes?), are motivated by some kind of righteousness, the lengths they go to are extreme in just about every sense of the word. And if they aren’t evil, it’s adjacent as adjacent gets. 

My favorite genre of film is crime or crime thriller. Cold in July fits perfectly in this realm of authoritative corruption and self-motivated, outlaw justice. The characters are decisive in their choices despite those choices involving such permanence. The music is transcendent taking a genre I already enjoy and layers over it to create this cocoon of deplorability that is, fully understanding this might sound psychotic, absolutely enthralling. Though in the era of murder documentary series, I don’t think I’ll be judged too harshly.

Rated R For: disturbing bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity

Runtime: 109 minutes

After Credits Scene: No

Genre: Crime, Thriller

Starring: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Wyatt Russell

Directed By: Jim Mickle

Out of 10

Story: 10/ Acting: 9/ Directing: 9.5/ Visuals: 9

OVERALL: 9.5/10

Buy to Own: Yes


Check out the trailer below:


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