Thursday, 24 July 2014

COLD IN JULY - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Jim Mickle Delivers the Goods (Again), Rocks @FantasiaFest 2014

Sam Shepard, Michael C. Hall & Don Johnson - Vigilantes? Executioners!
Jim Mickle's COLD IN JULY
Cold in July (2014) ****
Dir. Jim Mickle / Script: Nick Damici & Mickle
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw, Nick Damici

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Dane (Michael C. Hall) is late for the interment ceremony. A preacher has just finished reading words over the body in a cheap wooden box and two gravediggers are already piling dirt into the maw of the six-foot-deep open cavity in the earth where the young man Dane has killed will lay for eternity. The Sheriff (co-writer Nick Damici) has assured Dane that all is well - it's an open and shut case of self-defence. After all, we're in the great state of Texas, where a man's home is his castle, where he shall protect it and his family against anyone who dares creep into his sleepy suburban abode in the middle of the night. Still, Dane feels the weight of his actions. While his little boy slept soundly and his wife silently padded into the living room, Dane squeezed off one well placed shot into an intruder's skull, spraying globs of brain and geysers of blood all over the wall and chesterfield. Still haunted by images of cleaning the remnants of someone who was once a living, breathing human being and now reduced to a squeegee sponge of blood and gooey pulp being squirted and splashed into the toilet bowl, guilt has sunk its teeth into Dane's very soul, like some pit bull from the depths of hell, with jaws to match. He knows now his life has changed forever.

Dane hasn't even had time to get out of his station wagon when he arrives at the cemetery. Then again, nobody would ever know he's been the lone witness to the tail-end of the burial. No one, that is, save for Russell (Sam Shepard), the lanky, grizzled and grimacing old man with a grey buzz cut atop his dome and a pair of shades he's removed to reveal his piercing eyes. The old man, seemingly appearing from nowhere, towers above Dane, dwarfed only by the big, old Texas sky. He leans into the open window, burning holes into the killer of his only son.

"Come to watch the shit go into the hole, huh?" quips Russell with a half smile. "Mighty Christian of you."

Dane struggles for words, knowing that whatever he says won't make the old man feel any better.

"That sure was a nice picture of your family in the newspaper," says Russell with a smile so warm, it's sinister. He dons his shades again. That huge orb of Texas sunshine's mighty powerful. "Your little boy," he continues, "He sure looks a lot like you."

Dane's face is frozen.

"Y'all have a nice day, now." And the old man strides away, old, but resolute and powerful.

We've all seen J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear and while Sam Shepard is no Robert Mitchum (who in Hell could be?), one surely wouldn't want to be on this sonofabitch's shit list, either. As Russell, Sam Shepard is plenty scary.

Cold in July plays out in a tense, low key manner that at first seems similar to the classic 1962 revenge thriller, albeit with a dose or two of lithium, but all comparisons to Thompson's picture soon flake off like so much old paint on an abandoned farmhouse in some Texas dustbowl. The narrative transformation is, of course rooted in the striking screenplay adaptation of Joe R. Lonsdale's 80s pulp novel. Written by longtime creative partners Jim Mickle (the film's director) and Nick Damici (brilliantly playing the smarmy, corrupt local sheriff), the gorgeously crafted script takes us on a tortuously serpentine path of shocks and ever-mounting blasts of violence that keep our tiny hairs bristled, our mouths ever-agape and our jaws thudding ever-lower to the floor. And don't be fooled by the few loose ends that might plague you, but only after you've finished watching the film - they're as much a part of the intentional dives into straight-faced ambiguity as they are part of the strange social, political and cultural backdrop.

Lansdale's novel was borne out of the raging Rompin' Ronnie Reagan-omics. Add to this the Texas setting, a state overflowing with massive longhorn cattle, big old American gas-pig Mustangs, station wagons, mighty half-tons plus a gun culture wherein the right to bear arms was lightyears ahead of states that already had extremely liberal National Rifle Association (NRA)-approved attitudes to brandishing such weaponry to begin with. Here, we just plain gots are-seffs sum purty choice material ripe for Mickle-Damici's cinematic ropin' and'a ridin'. Their film is savagely funny, full of surprises and yup, just plain savage.

Shepard isn't the only scary-ass dude in this movie. Don Johnson as, get this, Jim-Bob, gets to yuck it up as a good ol' boy galut. He's a part-time pig farmer with the most behemoth-like porkers this side of Hog Heaven (and generous slabs of superbly white-fat-marbled bacon in his breakfast frying pan) and a part-time private dick with the shadiest connections imaginable. Jim-Bob boasts an arsenal of truly magnificent weaponry, a killer instinct to go along with his killer smile and one knee-slappin' sense of gallows humour. Plus, he's what you might call, in the parlance of white trash everywhere, good people.

The performance that never ceases to take one by surprise is Dexter-star Michael C. Hall. Shucking his persona from that annoyingly overrated series, Hall looks super-sexy-ugly, complete with a horrendous mullet and thick cop-moustache, Hall renders the mild-mannered picture-framing small business owner with a brilliant, underplayed hand which slowly and creepily mounts into that of a hardened killer - on the right side of the law, that is = or rather, whatever side of the law in the pulpy amoral world the film inhabits, that's less wrong than the other.

The trio of Shepard, Hall and Johnson become a perverse Texas version of The Three Musketeers fighting for love and country (in the sickest manner imaginable). At one point, the recently-released jailbird's son is disparagingly identified as "shit that don't fall too far from the tree", but as the lad has gone so far beyond even Dad's pale, Shepard himself remarks: "Whaddya do with a dog that keeps biting people? You either keep it on a chain or shoot it."

Shepard and Johnson play old buddies from Korea and they're both enveloped with a post-war ennui that lead them to take very different roads, at least on the surface. Deep down, though, it's a well-worn path they both share. Hall, of course, is mild mannered, but he is a product of gun culture and the almost-separatist Lone Star State DNA-hard-wiring of individualism that firmly delivers a sense of what's right, what's wrong and as such, doing right at all costs. It's the fluid of life-force that courses through his veins like a river wild. Though his character would have been too young to serve in Vietnam, he'd have grown up believing that it was a just and noble war. Add post-Cold War and Reagan-omics to his persona and he's prime material for bloodlust. Even though his first taste of blood renders him virtually immobile, it's ultimately the thing that leads his need, like a carrot on a stick, to see justice through - Texas-style, of course.

A warning: PLEASE be careful not to read much more than this about the movie before you see it. After my first helping, I scoured a variety of items and discovered WAY TOO MUCH INFORMATION!!! What in the hell is wrong with critics, puff-piece-scribes and flacks? Are they completely out to fucking lunch? Well, for my part, I saw the movie in a plumb virginal state - I even picked up a copy of the book, but didn't read it until afterwards. With that in mind, it would be unfair to reveal too many of the eye-popping, though perfectly natural twists in the story, but let's just say that the criminal element revealed is so appalling that we need to pinch ourselves to assure us we're not dreaming. One of the more grotesque elements that's revealed is the whole notion of organized crime in Texas. Johnson refers to it as "Dixie Mafia. Put "Dixie" and "Mafia" together in the same breath and you've got more scary-ass shit than you've bargained for. Even worse, however, are some of the activities the trio discover on a videocassette labelled "Batting Practice". Believe me, you just don't want to know. Well, at least until you see it to believe it and then, you really don't want to know.

Jim Mickle is a director who continues to dazzle. I hope he keeps making films with the same intelligence, prowess and independent spirit he's brought to bear on this film as well as his previously fine work Mulberry Street, Stake Land and We Are What We Are. I can't imagine the studios not wanting Mickle, nor can I imagine he doesn't want to make studio pictures either. He would benefit from their resources and we'd all benefit from his being able to keep growing, but he needs to remain resolutely his own man - so here's to the system not fucking him with an unwanted kiester-slam.

Cold in July is pure, deliciously vicious pulp fiction. It's as compulsive and propulsive as storytelling at its finest should be and it's marked with a tone and style that bears a unique, individual voice. There's no tongue-in-cheek, no cinema-referential indulgences and best of all, it remains true to its foul roots. There's a purity and cleanliness here that is absolutely and marvellously mired in filth, and we're all the better for it.

Cold in July played at the 2014 FantAsia International Film Festival, It's been released by IFC in the USA and by Mongrel Media in Canada.