cold in july

It’s difficult to describe exactly what Cold in July is about, because the plot changes course so many times that the movie can’t be pinned down. Actually, “changing course” feels like an inadequate metaphor, because it doesn’t communicate just how drastically this film changes tack throughout its running time. It’s more like a child that can’t seem to decide what toy it wants to play with, and all of the toys it picks up are radically different. For the first ten minutes, this movie appears to be a meditative small town drama. But then for fifteen minutes it’s a home invasion thriller. And for twenty minutes after that it’s a conspiracy tale. It keeps shuffling through “and then”s before settling into a groove for the last half that’s so far from where one would guess the film would be going at the outset.

So if nothing else, Cold in July holds the viewer’s interest through the sheer magnetism of keeping them wondering where it’s going to go next. But is it good? Not really. The movie ends up taking us on a not-that-unfamiliar path, and its two halves almost feel disconnected. Little that happens in the first has much to do with the other. There’s some kind of thematic meditation on fathers taking responsibility for their sons, but there’s no intellectual foundation to the superficial posturing.

Michael C. Hall, with the aid of an unfortunate mustache and even more unfortunate mullet, plays Richard Dane, a Texas man living an unassuming 1989 life until he kills a home intruder. Dane barely has time to wonder at what he’s done before he learns that the man’s ex-con father, Ben (Sam Shepard) has come to town seeking revenge. But Ben’s cat-and-mouse game with Dane gets put on the back burner when they realize that other parties are manipulating them both. Soon Don Johnson shows up as an old friend of Ben’s and the trio get set on a merry path of vigilante justice. And that’s about all that can be said without divulging spoilers, though that’s a shame, since it makes it difficult to convey what a loony film this is.

Hall is alright, though as the story goes on he becomes less an instigator of events than a ride-along partner to them. Shepard has the exact right mixture of qualities that his strange role needs. His grave competence is at first intimidating and then what makes him the new lead. Ben is a man out of time, a cowboy in the 20th century, operating under his own moral code without regard for the law. With Shepard as the serious gun and Hall is the hapless understudy, Johnson fills the comedic space of the main trio. He is all fuzzy dice and chrome finish swagger. Throughout the movie’s otherwise rote back half, their interactions are the biggest draw.

There’s a story thread about police corruption that runs through the middle portion of Cold in July that makes no sense at all and ends up getting dropped and never referenced again. I don’t know if that stems from the original novel by Joe Lansdale, or if it’s a result of the adaptation to the screen. Either way, it speaks to the sloppiness that pervades the film. In the process of watching it, it’s difficult to make heads or tails of what it’s on about, but in the aftermath, it simply fades away.