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Cold in July

By Philip Martin

This article was published May 30, 2014 at 2:19 a.m.


Jim Bob (Don Johnson) and Richard (Michael C. Hall) tease out some dark secrets in the East Texas-set Cold in July.

Cold in July

88 Cast: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson

Director: Jim Mickle

Rating: Not rated

Running time: 109 minutes

I don't know whether it's worth making the distinction between movie star and TV star anymore -- it used to be that the boxes in our living rooms were smaller, and that we watched movies on a wall while sitting in the dark with strangers. All that's changed, some of it for the good.

But anyway, Don Johnson was never a movie star -- he was Sonny Crockett, he was on Eastbound & Down. He had that Nash Bridges show too, but we never watched that. He was in movies too -- A Boy and His Dog back in 1975. Tin Cup. Django Unchained. He's the best thing in Alex of Venice, actor Chris Messina's directing debut that may or may not be coming to a theater near you.

Maybe because we think of Johnson as a TV star, his work is largely under-appreciated. But while we might think of him as more a "presence," he's a really fine actor. If you get a chance to see Alex of Venice, you'll see that. Or you could just watch him in Jim Mickle's gritty noir Cold in July, a favorite at this year's Sundance Film Festival, in which he plays Jim Bob, a backwoods private investigator with a cherry red Cadillac convertible.

Johnson's character doesn't appear until about halfway through this tight, unpredictable crime picture, but when he does he shifts what's already an intense, gripping pulp fiction tale into a darker, tragic mode.

Based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, Cold in July is set in completely recognizable East Texas in the late 1980s. The movie is ostensibly a coming-of-age tale for Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall), an otherwise mild-mannered family man who kills an unarmed burglar who breaks into his family's home at night. While Dane is nearly paralyzed with guilt, he suddenly has to contend with the dead man's father, Russell (Sam Shepard), a career criminal who has just been released from prison.

Russell is naturally bent on revenge. But it's not as straightforward as it first appears. While we think we understand what's going to happen -- that Russell will eventually tease out the alpha male in timid Richard and receive a bloody comeuppance -- there are complicating secrets and nefarious forces at play in the little Texas town.

While Johnson walks away with the movie, all three of the main actors are impressive. Shepard provides his reliable dark gravitas, and Hall -- who like Johnson is a TV star (his career parallels Johnson's in that they're both best known for playing residents of Miami; Hall was Dexter Morgan, the serial killer who specialized in killing serial killers in Showtime's Dexter) -- is simply terrific as the nervous, conflicted Richard who realizes the world is much rougher than he'd imagined.

Mickle has a sure hand, blending B-movie horror and detective tropes with wicked black humor in service of what turns out to be a smart commentary on the responsibilities and freighted perils of fatherhood. There's a movie-brat quality to his work that recalls early Quentin Tarantino (but with a little more restraint).

Cold in July is the sort of naturalistic, nuanced thriller you don't see much in this age of overt, high concept star-driven cinema. It almost feels like a novelistic TV show.

MovieStyle on 05/30/2014

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