Cold In July (2014): The 21st Century’s most underrated 80s throwback?

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Who doesn’t love a great slice of retro-wave? Nicholas Winding Refn’s uncompromising crime dramas Drive and Only God Forgives, the fresh madness that is Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy and his debut Beyond The Black Rainbow (or as I often call it, the film that Stanley Kubrick never made) and beautifully nostalgic and madcap flights-of-fancy such as Stranger Things have all utilised a specific aesthetic that pays homage to how many people remember the 1980s. Neon lighting, atavistic synth soundtracks and dusky, character-driven narratives that recall the films, television shows and video games of that decade with an elusively futuristic spin (when, of course, it isn’t outright sci-fi) make for a uniquely emotive and sometimes otherworldly viewing experience.

Unlike a great deal of the narratives within this sub-genre that occur in the present day, this week’s film goes that one step further in the fact that it takes place in 1989, contemporaneously reflecting the publication year of the Joe R. Lansdale source novel. It’s an expertly crafted and compelling tale of three men drawn into an impossibly dark world of mistaken identity, vengeance, corruption and depravity, and for some bizarre reason, it generated some minor buzz upon its release 6 years ago before falling well below the radar. Let’s talk about Cold In July. 

Michael C. Hall stars as Richard Dane, a family man and owner of a small frame-shop business in small-town Texas. He’s a well-liked man locally, having a good rapport with customers and other residents as he grinds daily before retiring home to spend quality time with his wife Anne (Vinessa Shaw) and son Jordan (Brogan Hall). Awoken one night by an intruder, Richard arms himself to go and investigate and, in a panic, shoots the prowler dead.

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Though he protected himself and his family from a potentially horrendous fate and is hailed as a hero by the townspeople, Richard is profoundly disturbed by the experience, so much so that he actually visits the cemetery during the funeral of the deceased intruder, one Frederick Russell. Also in attendance is Frederick’s father, a menacingly dangerous parolee by the name of Ben Russell (Sam Shepard). Ben approaches Richard in his car and makes sinister allusions to the fact that neither Richard nor his family is safe, and he can be assured that Ben will deliver retribution very soon.

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What could easily tread the path of your garden-variety cat-and-mouse revenge thriller at this point takes an unprecedented turn, as after some preliminary stalking and violent altercations, Richard & Ben are actually thrown together as a reluctant team. You see, the man that Richard shot dead in his home that night wasn’t actually Ben’s son, and it’s a fact that certain elements are deadly intent on keeping a secret. With local law enforcement being dismissive of their insistence that the intruder has been misidentified, the bewildered and pissed off duo enlists the help of Ben’s friend Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson), a charismatic and very Southern private investigator.

Jim’s sleuthing leads him to formulate a theory that Frederick Russell is, in fact, alive and well and living somewhere in Texas. Each man desperate to deduce exactly what the hell is going on here, the trio endeavours to jump into this particularly weird rabbit hole, and in doing so uncover a nightmarish conspiracy centred around organised crime, police corruption, witness protection and stomach-churning deviancy. It’s a murky and disturbing hell that the unlikely alliance are going to have to wade through tooth-and-nail if any of them hope to make it back to normality intact.

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This very special and criminally underrated work is retrospective not only in terms of its 1980s aesthetic but also its themes. Richard Dane’s psychological upset in the wake of taking another man’s life ignites a certain self-resentment owing to his failure to meet standards of masculinity and be the master of his own destiny, joining up with Ben and Jim to not only decipher the bizarre central mystery but also to assert and verify his manhood. This is contrasted with Ben and Jim’s confidence and comfort with doling out violence if deemed necessary, the two being arguably superior to the film’s villains in terms of morals but utterly equal in terms of how dangerous they can be.

The film’s OST by Jeff Grace is a superb deluge of ominous synthwave music, strongly evoking the soundtracks of John Carpenter and the school of films that you might find Eric Red’s name attached to. Dark and threatening electro pulses through the picture, and it’s the perfect supplement to the suspenseful nightmare fuel that our heroes are caught in the middle of. In conjunction with this deft sonic nostalgia is a great, almost New Hollywood approach to characterisation, the narrative spearheaded by the divergent personalities and motivations of the three principals, and it even designates Don Johnson’s character of Jim as an intermittent provider of comic relief, which, counterintuitively, works in pitch-perfect fashion for a film awash with some very troubling subject matter. When all is said and done, Richard has aligned himself with two men who are completely barking mad in their own special ways, and it’s fitting to have a small vein of black comedy running through the film to highlight the absolute absurdity of an affable everyman being plunged into this most abnormal of situations.

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A thoroughly entertaining, thought-provoking, funny, sad and chilling experience, Cold In July has become unforgivably ignored since its 2014 release, and that’s something that needs to be rectified. If you enjoy old-school storytelling, 80s media, mystery, neo-noir or simply just great filmmaking, director Jim Mickle (who is also the man behind 2010’s woefully undersung Stake Land) created a true gem here that is unequivocally deserving of your attention. Make this your watch for tonight.

 

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