Thursday, July 3, 2014

Cold in July

Earlier this month, I saw Cold in July at the Landmark Opera Plaza.

Cold in July starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard & Don Johnson; directed by Jim Mickle; (2014) - Official Website

Cold in July is based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale.  Lansdale is a prolific and popular author.  He wrote the Jonah Hex graphic novels and Bubba Ho-Tep which was made into a film (directed by Don Coscarelli) which I saw at IndieFest several years ago.

As long as I mentioned IndieFest, I should confess that I completely skipped out on DocFest earlier this month at the Roxie, New Parkway and other venues.  It was competing against too many other events such as World Cup Soccer, the New Filipino Cinema series at YBCA, work obligations, illness and film fatigue.  The first film festival to which I bought a festival pass was IndieFest so I have a soft spot for them but I just didn't have it in me to watch 15 or 20 movies over the two week DocFest.  Perhaps I should have caught one but I didn't have the motivation.  I also completely missed Frameline which ran from June 19 to 29 at the Castro, Roxie and other venues.

Cold in July is set in 1980s Texas for no particular reason except the novel was set in 1980s Texas.  VHS tapes and video rental store advance the plot at crucial moments but otherwise I think the setting could have been updated to the present.

Michael C. Hall is Richard Dane, a framer (as in photos and paintings).  He and his wife wake up one night to hear someone breaking into their house.  Dane nervously loads his revolver in the bedroom.  It's Texas so everyone has a gun.  He confronts the prowler who is wearing a ski mask.  After a tense standoff, he burglar makes a sudden move which leads to Richard shooting and killing the intruder.

The local police quickly rule the incident an open and shut case of self-defense or was it defense of property?  I lived in Texas in the 1980s and if I recall correctly, a property owner is justified in using deadly force in protecting his/her property between sunset and sunrise.

Anyway, Dane begins to suffer post-traumatic stress.  Although justified and not facing any criminal action, the fact that he killed a man begins to weigh on him...and that's before the dead man's father shows up and makes vague threats against Richard's young son.  Ben Russell (Sam Shepard) is a paroled felon in town to bury his son, Freddy Russell.  At this point, Cold in July appears as though it is going to be a tale of vengeance by a psychotic criminal, but these film changes directions faster than a Texas rattlesnake can strike.

Dane works with the local police to build a case against Ben Russell but Dane is getting a funny vibe off Ray Price (Nick Damici), the detective handling the investigation.  Even though Russell breaks into his house, Dane suspects something is amiss. While at the police station, Dane sees a Wanted poster for Freddy Russell and it doesn't look anything like the man he shot.  He asks Price about this but Price insists it is the same man and that Dane was suffering from shock immediately after the shooting.  Dane's suspicions lead him back to the police station late one night where he sees Price and other police officers leading a barely conscious Ben Russell out of the station.  Price had previously told Dane that Russell had been captured in Mexico and was back in prison.

Rescuing Russell from death by a police cover-up, Dane convinces Russell that something is amiss.   They dig up Freddy Russell's coffin only to find a corpse that has had its fingers cut off and teeth extracted so that its identity could not be determined through fingerprints or dental records.  Russell contacts his Korean War buddy Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson), a pig farmer cum private investigator.  Jim Bob finds out that Freddy Russell ran afoul with the Dixie Mafia.  Turning state's evidence, Freddy's fake death was a way to keep him safe.  No one is going to go looking for a dead man.  I'm not sure how Ray Price was involved or if the burglar in Dane's house was set up by the cops or just a coincidence.

Lying to his wife, Dane goes down to Jim Bob's pig farm to help Jim Bob and Russell find Freddy.  By this point, Dane won't let it go.  They discover that Freddy is involved in a porn/snuff film criminal enterprise.  This upsets Russell so much that he decides he must kill his son. I haven't mentioned yet that he has never met his son.  Even though this is well beyond his comfort level, Dane (after some initial hesitation) decides to go along with Jim Bob and Russell to take down the Freddy and his gang.  I won't say who dies in the final shootout.

Cold in July is quite a fun ride if you can deal with Texas, snuff films, 1980s, Don Johnson, etc.  Shepard and Johnson prove they can still hold an audience's rapt attention.  The most difficult part to reconcile is Dane's transformation from remorseful killer to avenging angel.  Male bonding, societal expectations of men in Texas in 80s, repulsion by snuff films - these can all partially explain Dane's transformation.  I will reveal that Dane survives and has part of his ear shot off.  How does he explain that to his wife and son?  How does he resume his framing business after lethally confronting snuff film makers?  I didn't quite buy that part of the story but when you are dealing with Texas sized plot devices, you don't quibble.

Cold in July and William Friedkin's Killer Joe would make a good double bill.

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