The mustache and mullet make the man. Or so the man hopes.
In Jim Mickle's Cold in July, Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) is a small town Texas entrepreneur in 1989, his days spent running a little frame shop on the main strip in town, evenings at home with his wife and slightly annoying little boy. This is a time and place where men are expected to be men, and if you're lacking in the rugged masculinity department, some creative hairstyling and some wispy lip fuzz may be your attempt at a solution. If that fails, having a gun in the bedside drawer can't hurt either.
But actually it can, as one burglar discovers early in the film when Dane catches him snooping, only to quite accidentally shoot the intruder dead in his living room. Suddenly, with an unintended slip of his finger, he's the town's newest and unlikeliest celebrity, admired and congratulated for taking matters into his own shaky hands. But despite what Dane's mailman might believe, killing a man doesn't make you more of one yourself.
On the one hand, the movies hardly need yet more examinations of perceptions of masculinity. On the other, one as well-crafted and constantly surprising as Mickle's adaptation of Joe Lansdale's pulpy crime novel is hard to argue against.
Mickle continues to establish himself as one of the most talented young genre filmmakers working today, an expert at taking stories about vampires, cannibals, and murderers, infusing them with generous helpings of evocative atmosphere, and then diving into the more meaningful subtext just below the lurid, blood-soaked surface. In Lansdale's novel he finds a perfect opportunity to take a break from the horror settings of his last two films, 2010's Stake Land and last year's We Are What We Are, to try his hand at a noir piece that, thanks to Lansdale's thoroughly unpredictable plotting, swings from vengeance thriller to three-way buddy movie to father-and-son morality tale with biblical overtones.
The vengeance comes in when the burglar is identified as the son of Ben Russell, a recently released convict played with grim menace by Sam Shepard. He begins to terrorize Dale and his family with a psychotic verve that suggests a less flamboyant (and therefore even more frightening) version of Cape Fear's Max Cady. But something's not quite right about any of this, and Dane starts to realize that maybe he and Russell have been falsely set up as enemies. The two join up with Russell's old Korean War buddy, a good-old-boy private eye named Jim Bob (Don Johnson, perfectly embodying the character's down-home charisma).
This odd trio – two-thirds grizzled war vets, one-third inept (but determined) shopkeeper – winds up accidentally happening upon some truly disturbing truths, leading to a final act that finds Mickle channeling pleasingly trashy '80s influences. This is a director not shy about explicitly calling out his inspirations: at one point the characters have a meeting at a drive-in screening of Night of the Living Dead, and much of the film lies atop a score from Jeff Grace that self-consciously hearkens back to the synth scores that used to be John Carpenter's calling card.
That final act may find the director having a little too much fun with the genre elements. What's set his past two features apart, particularly the excellent We Are What We Are – an allegory on religious fundamentalism wrapped up in cannibalistic horror – is how well he blends pulp with purpose. Cold in July touches on questions of fathers, sons, and what's passed from one to the other – for good and ill. But at some point, the mechanics of the plot and the pure fun of watching Hall, Shepard, and Johnson playing off one another end up eclipsing those ideas.
That's plenty satisfying on its own, though: a well-executed crime thriller doesn't need many layers to justify its pleasures.