The spirits of 1980s genre maestros like John Carpenter, Walter Hill and William Lustig hover strongly over Jim Mickle’s “Cold in July,” a superior piece of Texas pulp fiction that starts out like a house on fire, sags a bit in the middle, then rallies for an exuberantly bloody finish. Bolstered by a trio of strong performances from Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and an uncorked Don Johnson, this ultra-violent, grimly funny hybrid of home-invasion thriller and revenge Western won’t be to most mainstream tastes, but should flourish with the same niche audiences who have deservedly come to embrace Mickle (“Stake Land,” “We Are What We Are”) as a noble upholder of a bygone B-movie tradition. IFC picked up distribution rights at Sundance.
The pic’s opening 30 minutes, arguably the best work Mickle has yet done, detail a startling attempted robbery and its equally harrowing aftermath. On a summer night in 1989, East Texas small-business owner Richard Dane (Hall) is awakened by someone breaking into the home he shares with wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) and their young son. Not quite on purpose, Richard shoots the intruder at close range, splattering his insides all over the sofa and wallpaper. (In a typically wry touch, Mickle scores the eventual clean-up montage to James Carr singing “Forgetting You.”)
The police tell Richard that the dead man is Freddy Russell, a wanted felon with a mile-long rap sheet, and when Richard goes into town the next day, we can see that he’s a changed man: People look at him with a bit of awe, wondering if they’d have the courage to stand their ground in the same situation. Even Richard regards himself a bit differently, and Hall (decked out in mustache and pseudo-mullet) is very good at showing us how, on some fundamental level, Richard has always doubted himself as a man, and how pulling that trigger has made him flush with self-confidence. (In this, “Cold in July” shares some connective tissue with David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” in which a similar act of heroism unleashed the dark side of an unassuming family man.)
Taking some of the wind out of Richard’s macho sails is the news that Freddy’s father, Ben (Shepard), himself a convicted felon of some repute, has just been paroled. And when the two men meet for the first time at the local cemetery, Ben makes it clear that he has payback on the mind. “That was a nice picture of your family in the paper,” he snarls with the devil-may-care authority of a man who’s seen and done very dark deeds, and long ago stopped caring about the consequences. Nor does it take Ben long to make good on his word, building to a blisteringly intense sequence in which Richard, falsely reassured by the presence of a police detail, must once again protect his family from a wolf at the door.
That night ends in yet more carnage, and with Ben being hauled off to the slammer, but rather than being the end of this sordid tale, “Cold in July” (which Mickle and writing partner Nick Damici adapted from the novel by prolific cult author Joe Lansdale) is just getting started. When a “wanted” poster gives Richard second thoughts about whether or not the man he killed really was Freddy Russell, the movie takes a turn for the conspiratorial, and after a couple of delicious twists, finds Richard and Ben joining forces as reluctant partners to get to the bottom of an ever-thickening mystery. Also along for the ride is Jim Bob Luke (Johnson), a Houston private eye with a sideline in pig farming, who tools around in a crimson Cadillac convertible nicknamed “red bitch” and is played by Johnson with the effusive brio of an actor reborn.
There’s no question that “Cold in July” loses some of its tight-fisted tension in this middle stretch, as it settles into a relaxed, Hawksian group portrait, the two hardass Korean War vets furthering Richard’s crash course in what it means to be a real man. But the actors have a terrific chemistry that keeps the movie humming along even in its most conventional passages, in which this unlikely vigilante trio tries to stay one step ahead of the police, the Dixie Mafia and an underground pornography ring. Eventually, we end up somewhere in the neighborhood of “Taxi Driver” and Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore,” as “Cold in July” once again shape-shifts into a latter-day riff on “The Searchers,” complete with the possibility that the person this posse seeks may not want — or deserve — to be rescued.
Mickle borrows a lot, but he tends to borrow from the best, and he has a strong sense of when to stick to the expected genre conventions and when to gently subvert them. “Cold in July” is, like all of his work since his industrious, no-budget bio-terror debut, “Mulberry St.” (2006), a modest, unpretentious exercise in old-fashioned thrills and chills, made with a level of care and craft that elevates it well about the fray. Once upon a time, a Hollywood studio would have already had him bound to an ironclad contract.
Not least among the pic’s retro pleasures is the hard-driving synthesizer score of composer Jeff Grace, which kicks in under the opening credits and rarely lets up. (Somewhere, Pino Donaggio and Giorgio Moroder are smiling.) Regular Mickle d.p. Ryan Samul gives the film a sleek, richly textured widescreen look, especially in the beautifully underlit night scenes.