Cold in July begins and ends with gunfire. The opening blast is indecisive and ambiguous, and the legal rectitude of the act does little to offset its moral quandaries and emotional baggage. The final one is a bloody barrage, copious in carnage and dead-eyed righteousness. The first round is fired by someone burdened by faith in societal order; the last by someone whose eyes are open to mankind's nihilism. The catch? Both shooters are the same man.
When Richard Dane (played by Raleigh native Michael C. Hall of Dexter and Six Feet Under) shoots an unarmed intruder in his family's East Texas home in 1989, pangs of guilt persist despite the resolve of a local sheriff (played by screenwriter Nick Damici) to bury both the bad guy and the case.
One of several faults in Damici's screenplay is that it doesn't depict any interactions between Dane and his fellow townsfolk prior to the shooting. So when neighbors start casting wary glares at Dane, it appears that a conservative citizenry you'd expect to sympathize with his plight are equally beset by small-town sensationalism.
The plot takes the first of many sharp turns when Ben Russel (Sam Shepard), the dead burglar's ex-con father, shows up with vengeance on his mind. Thriller tropes pile up as Russel starts stalking Dane around town, even breaking into his young son's bedroom under the noses of local cops.
Just when it appears that the film will devolve into a Cape Fear retread, director Jim Mickle adds a final twist that propels the storyline toward its violent denouement. After Dane saves Russel's life, the pair teams up to uncover some True Detective-style secrets involving a police cover-up, the Dixie mafia and a snuff-film ring. They're aided by the arrival of Jim Bob (Don Johnson, a breath of fresh air), a private eye full of wisecracks and connections who drives a fire-engine-red Cadillac.
The individual scenes of Mickle's Southern Gothic are so minimal they're nearly directionless. Although the film is adapted from Joe R. Lansdale's 1989 crime novel, much of the dialogue seems ad-libbed. Johnson is more than up for the challenge; Shepard, on the other hand, sometimes permits disjointed, inaudible prose to crack his character's grim reticence.
Still, Mickle's deliberate homage to early John Carpenter is pronounced, from the grainy film stock to Jeff Grace's modular synth score to the Albertus typeface of the credits. There are also obvious nods to genre masters such as Walter Hill and George Romero.
Moreover, the bloodbath finale evokes Sam Peckinpah's early-'70s work, particularly when Dane, the mild-mannered frame shop owner, must compromise his desire for honor and morality in the face of brutal reality. While the character motives of Russel and Joe Bob are wanting, Dane's evolution binds together this genre-twisting neo-noir.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bullet time."