Michael C. Hall, in the center of a Sam Shepard-Don Johnson sandwich, plays an everyman in over his head in "Cold in July." Credit: IFC Films Michael C. Hall, in the center of a Sam Shepard-Don Johnson sandwich, plays an everyman in over his head in "Cold in July."
Credit: IFC Films

 

'Cold in July'
Director: Jim Mickle
Stars: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

 

Does a thriller gain or lose credibility if it severely strains logic but tells its tale with authority? Like the recent “Blue Ruin,” “Cold in July” is an old school revenge grinder that marries questionable sense to assured filmmaking. Both films ask that you don’t apply cold rationality to what’s on screen — only that you surrender to their sustained mood and steep descents into darkness. At the same time they include recognizably human characters — who seem believably in over their heads, who act foolishly or put instinct over smarts — who nonetheless do things that few, with even only some of their faculties, would do in the same position. How much do you nitpick versus give in?

 

There’s no easy answer for either film, but “Cold in July” is definitely the more problematic number, even as its highs are arguably higher. Michael C. Hall plays Richard, a seriously disheveled every-Texan who accidentally guns down an intruder in the middle of the night. Richard seriously didn’t mean to do it, and is nonplussed when he becomes the talk of the small town. Worse, the man’s grizzled, creepy father (Sam Shepard) has just been released from prison, and isn’t comforted by Richard’s apologies.

 

Things very quickly escalate into “Cape Fear” territory; indeed, it gets to the home invasion part of that story with stunning efficiency. To reveal more would be cruel — except that it involves Don Johnson in the good ol’ boy mode at which he's lately excelled. (The star of “Miami Vice” and the playwright of “Buried Child” — together at last.) Suffice to say what started like “A History of Violence” in dirtier clothes takes another few hairpin turns, turning from one kind of gutter noir exploitation film into another entirely, then another. This is the kind of shape-shifter where the primary pleasure is in being jerked around, thinking you were getting one movie only to wind up watching another.

Of course, this is also highly suspect — a sign that filmmaker Jim Mickle (“Stakeland”) might be distracting us from something (say, a logic-straining shady underworld) with crazy plotting. He also has terrific actors to bolster the illusion of greatness. Our three stars are ideally mismatched. Johnson is an extrovert, Sheppard is a scary introvert and Hall is believably, enjoyably and magnetically bumbling. He’s not smart, though he’s not dumb, although some of the actions — like the adventure he goes off on in the final stretch — aren't always very convincing, and the film by its final shot seems smaller than it should. Still, Mickle'stone — heavy, with the by now de rigueur modern neo-genre film ‘80s-era synth score, yet sometimes goofy and personable — is bewitching enough to carry one over the stray drawbacks. One day, even with this same cast, he may make a film that's solid all the way through, though this often feels close to it.

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