'Cold in July' Review: The 80s by Way of East Texas
Cold in July is the quintessential 80s film: flawed heroes, a killer synthesizer score, and deeply hued scenery straight out of a Carpenter film. However, this film wasn't made anytime near the 80s, it was directed in 2013 but it doesn't reflect it at all. This film also has no hype surrounding it and I can almost guarantee that you haven't heard of it up until this review but that works in its favor. Cold in July is a brooding, calculating thriller that coaxes fantastic performances from actors that aren't necessarily known for their serious acting.
Set in East Texas, Cold in July revolves around Richard Dane, played by Dexter star Michael C. Hall, who kills a man that breaks into his family's house on a stormy night in East Texas. The criminal he shoots is well-known in East Texas, and has a father, played with the right amount of gruff by the Sam Shepard, who vows to avenge his son's murder. The basic plot premise isn't anything genre-bending but the murder acts as the film's MacGuffin and leads to an interesting plot twist about halfway through the film. There is no sense ruining the twist, but it's well done and believable, leading the film down a wholly different path than the straightforward revenge story.
Shepard and Hall do a great job bringing believability and weight to their respective characters and its nice to see Hall post-Dexter in a role vastly different than that of a South Florida serial killer. However, the real scene stealer of the film is Don Johnson as Jim Bob Luke, the private detective out of Houston who epitomizes the 80s Texas stereotype. He is big, boisterous, and quick-witted but he doesn't push the character into caricature territory. His character is the most memorable in the film and by the end of the film I wanted to see where he went next.
Along with some stand-out performances, this is a 80s thriller if it was made by up and coming horror director Ti West. The film is a slow build, very little traditional action happens for the first hour and half of a near two hour movie, yet the climax is rewarding if you stick with the film. The characters are fully realized in the world as a result of the slow build, with their motivations and personalities built realistically through well-paced and expertly written dialogue. It's ultimately a character-driven thriller that relies on the three leads to carry the brunt of the film, but when the action does come its pure 80s. Blood flows deep red and in copious amounts and the baddies are small town thugs who can't help but take a bullet straight to the chest. While the climax is shorter than I would have liked, it still capped the film with enough action that I didn't feel like the film never paid off.
As with any good 80s-esque thriller, the music and lighting play a huge part in setting the overall mood and tempo of the film. The score is straight out of John Carpenter's playbook with a heavy synthesizer throughout and minimal use of any other conventional instruments. It pulses throughout the film, giving an underlying sense of urgency to the character's actions that only a synthesizer score can. Along with the excellent score, the use of the color blue and red to light the scenes was a successful choice stylistically. Whenever a main character is on-screen at night, they are shot with a blue tint to them with a red hue only happening once during the slow motion driving shot. The use of blue really helps to establish the somber, seriousness of the events the characters take part in. It also imparts that uniquely 80s feel to the movie in a way that stark lighting can.
The only real issue with the film are the main villain, primarily because since the film performs a bait and switch, once the real villain is revealed, the movie is already half over. This doesn't allow for the same development that the characters in the film receive which is unfortunate as it is a missed opportunity. There is also a moral question posed during the second hand of the film that is somewhat glossed over due to the lack of the depth regarding the villain's personality and motivation. It's unfortunate but ultimately doesn't heavily from the film.
If enjoy Blue Velvet, Blood Simple, or just love a good synthesizer score, then check out Cold in July. It also features Michael C. Hall not playing a serial killer, and a scene chewing performance from the immortal Don Johnson. Its totally under the radar and worth the watch.
Final Say: Watch It