Richard Dane is a dweeby frame-shop owner living in 1980s Texas. He’s a family man, probably a born-again Christian, and oddly meek considering his obvious manliness. And then one night he shoots and kills an unarmed intruder, more out of nervousness than self-protection. This is the terrific set-up for Cold in July, in which Michael C. Hall plays interestingly against type from Dexter, giving Richard a deep-seated longing for action under his timidity. And he gets it: the intruder’s father, a career criminal (Sam Shepard), has just been released from prison and wants revenge. And there isn’t a security system made that wily ol’ Russel can’t slip through.
Turns out, though, that this noirish crime drama—the local cop, though cordial, is strangely evasive about the details of the dead burglar’s identity—is more entertaining than suspenseful, and with the arrival of a shady detective named Jim Bob played by Don Johnson, in a scene calculated to play on Johnson’s heyday from Miami Vice, the film loses its gripping momentum and becomes more of a playful riff similar to Red and its contrived casting of aging superstars. The moody, ’80s ambience of a synthesized score mixed with excellent sound effects (a loose muffler has never sounded so ominous) also becomes too prominent, while the plot, which sends Richard, Russel, and Jim Bob on a search-and-uncover mission far darker than any of them expected, is undercut with cheap sight gags (Jim Bob is also a pig farmer). This is a shame, since once Johnson settles into character he brings a convincing determination to the role of a wheeler-dealer with more than a shred of decency left. The film also trips over plot holes big enough to send a tractor-trailer through.
Directed by Jim Mickle, a former cameraman who directed the cult vampire flick Stake Land, Cold in July recovers nicely with a grim denouement that relies mostly on the acting chops of the three leads, and is just disturbing enough to make audiences wish that the entire film had been as chillingly assured.