If you want to recreate the experience of watching a movie on HBO at 12:50 a.m. in 1991, Jim Mickle’s “Cold in July” is your movie. It’s not just that the movie, out on DVD this week, is set in 1989 and revels in its Bush Senior-era kitschiness, from star Michael J. Hall’s majestic mullet to co-star Don Johnson’s shoebox-sized car phone to, well, Don Johnson. It’s more the texture of the thriller, modest in scope, seedy and bloody and focused. They don’t make them like they used to anymore.
Hall makes a sharp break from his “Dexter” and “Six Feet Under” characters in playing Richard Dane, the owner of a small picture-framing business in an east Texas town. Late one night, an intruder breaks into Dane’s home. This being east Texas, Dane has a gun, and in a moment of panic shoots and kills the unarmed intruder.
This being east Texas, the killing is immediately seen as justified by the local Sheriff (longtime Mickle collaborator Jim Damici, who also co-wrote the screenplay), who identifies the intruder as a lifetime lowlife named Freddy Russell. But the killing has shaken Dane’s world, and Mickle includes a stomach-churning montage of Dane and his wife (Vinessa Shaw) patiently cleaning all the blood spatters in their living room. But they can never get clean.
Still haunted, Dane decides on impulse to visit the pauper’s funeral held for Freddy, and runs into Freddy’s father Ben (Sam Shepard). He’s an even nastier customer than his son. Shepard’s soft voice sounds like the wind rattling a torn windowshade as Ben mutters vaguely threatening comments about hurting Dane and his family.
This sort of plot — the nuclear family defending itself against the Other — was huge in the Reagan and Bush eras (“The Guest” seems to be going for a similar vibe). The clearest influence on “Cold in July” is John Carpenter — in addition to the “Assault on Precinct 13” style plot, there’s an ominous synth-heavy score that screams Carpenter. Even the credits are in “Big Trouble in Little China” font.
But then Mickle and Damici (adapting a novel from the great Joe R. Lansdale) reshuffle the deck, and “Cold in July” rather quickly becomes a completely different kind of thriller than the one we thought we were watching. I won’t give away where the movie goes, except to say that the second half is enlivened greatly by a scene-stealing performance by Johnson as what may be crime fiction’s first pig-farming private detective.
The suspense that builds is rather queasy — after using East Texas browns and greys as the color palette for much of the film, Mickle uses garish primary colors for the bloody finale, heightening the sense that these characters have wandered out of the everyday world and into a funhouse of moral depravity.
While “Cold in July” is engrossing to watch, in the end I’m not sure it adds up to much more than a genre exercise, ultimately as forgettable as those late-night premium cable offerings. I wouldn’t buy it on Blu-ray, but if they released it on VHS, I might be tempted, for old time’s sake.