Masculinity Undone: Jim Mickle's Cold in July (2014) - Reviewed


A bloody, unforgiving juxtaposition of his previous film, We Are What We Are, Jim Mickle's full tilt Texas-noir, Cold in July, not only deconstructs stereotypes of masculinity, it obliterates their essence which is embedded into "traditional" American culture.  Featuring a trio of exceptional performances, blistering cinematography, and a relentless script (based on Joe R. Landsdale's classic novel) this is one of the best films of the 21st century.  

East Texas, 1984.  Richard Dane kills a man who breaks into his house and soon after begins to suspect a police cover up.  When the father of the deceased man arrives for revenge, Dane learns that nothing is what it seems and there are no boundaries when it comes to blood.  The script, written by Mickle and his longtime collaborator Nick Damici (who has a cameo as the sheriff) is a stripped-down examination of manhood while also ruminating on themes of brotherhood and friendship in post-Vietnam America. While on the surface these concepts seem cliched and unprogressive, what awaits beyond the mundane is a serious condemnation of these long-held ideals.  

The story is told from within a trinity of symbols.   Michael C. Hall is Dane, the son; a naive man haunted by the things he has done and yet obsesses with the violence he knows he must do.  The scenes between Dane and his wife (masterfully portrayed by Vanessa Shaw from Hocus Pocus) show how Dane's inner weaknesses, coming to the fore, threaten to undo the tranquility of his ignorance.  These weaknesses soon congeal into a misguided sense of justice when the father archetype, Sam Shepard, arrives.  One of Cold in July's many venomous tricks is in how it continually morphs and changes.  What begins as a simple revenge story evolves into something extremely complex, even heartbreaking, a searing refutation of macho men who are too tough for feelings.  Rounding out the trio is Don Johnson's private detective, the brother.  An old ally of Shepard's Russell, Johnson delivers the best performance of his career as Jim Bob Luke, an iconic fixture in Lansdale's literary universe.  

The trinity is explored within three distinct acts.  The first appears a standard revenge film, while the second is more a procedural detective story, albeit with Mickle's penchant for darkness.  The final act devolves into a gritty actioner with horror elements and while the tonal shifts were too much for certain viewers, it is an essential ingredient in the overall meaning of the story.  Innocence is lost in bloodshed, leading a man to question who he is and if he's adequate, which sparks a quest, or a journey to define that.  The summation, however, as Hall's Dane quietly returns home to his family becomes clear.  We are defined by those we love and those who love us.  If masculine underpinnings are removed from the concepts of father and brotherhood, what remains is the basic human emotion of attachment, respect, and decency, things that are universal across humanity.


The other side of the film has the feel of a dirty mattress, which enhances these feelings. Ryan Samul's cinematography captures the underbelly of the Texas night by focusing on visceral scenes of violence coupled with the main trio's reactions to the evil around them. You're not just witnessing violent acts, you're a hostage, witnessing a crucible of blood and redemption.  These themes are further strengthened by Jeff Grace's low key, but haunting score. This is a film about men driving through the blackness of the void trying to set right the mistakes of their past, perfectly echoed in Dynatron's Cosmo Black, the standout of the soundtrack, a techno song that perfectly sets the tone for the looming showdown vibe that pervades the final act of the film, yet another American trope that is subverted.   The heroes are flesh and blood, and their "justice" is filled with mistakes, bullets, and injury to all parties, a harbinger of the painful truths of adulthood.

Merciless in its delivery and unrelenting in its design, Cold in July is a film about men that doesn't celebrate violence, it abhors it.   Underneath the gore and grime is a story about three (of many) parts of the male ego and how the core tenets of these parts were cast aside in favor of more bullets and more explosions, particularly during the 1980’s.   What makes this such a powerful film is how it brings the viewer to this conclusion.  There is no elegance, no grace, only fathers and sons keeping one another close in the dimness of morality when it is surrounded by the shadows of evil and hate.  In the end who we become when we pass through this darkness is often determined by those with whom we walk next too.  

--Kyle Jonathan