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Cold In July

May 27, 2014
Cold in July

When I was growing up, the most hated words to appear on a report card were “not working up to potential”. It always sounded like such a passive-aggressive guilt trip, like they didn’t have anything solid to fault me with, but wanted to say something bad anyway. After watching Cold in July, I’ve seen the other side: I honestly wanted this to be a great story, but I kept watching it squander its opportunities for greatness.

We start right off with a shooting. Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) wakes to hear someone in his house. This being Texas, he takes his gun downstairs and kills the intruder. The sheriff (co-writer Nick Damici) quickly identifies one wanted felon Freddy Russell, so one less problem all around.

But it seems that Freddy’s dad, Ben (Sam Shepard) has just been paroled, and despite not seeing his son for most of his life he’s not happy. He shows up, making Richard fear for his family. The police run Ben off, capturing him out of town, so that’s the end of that.

But at the police station to make his statement, Richard sees Freddy’s wanted poster, and it’s not the man he shot. Later that night he sees the sheriff and his deputies wrestling a drunken Ben out into the back of his car. Richard follows them until they leave Ben in a drunken heap on the train tracks; after they’re gone, Richard drags Ben to safety.

And so it goes, piling twist on top of twist. A private detective named Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson) shows up with a story about Freddy working with the “Dixie Mafia”, and going into witness protection after turning state’s evidence. And then, when they track him down, it turns out he’s into some nasty business of his own.

And sure, I like a convoluted story, but only when the convolutions turn out to mean something. These twists never resolve into an elegant pattern like a celtic knot; they’re more like unkempt holiday lights. Once organized crime and witness protection come up, we’re supposed to forget all about the giant, glaring questions of who Richard really shot, or how the police set it up. And then we’re supposed to forget the Dixie Mafia when we learn of Freddy’s own predilections. And we’re supposed to take on faith Jim Bob’s assertions that the authorities would rather turn a blind eye to whatever Freddy does, so long as he keeps testifying for them.

I would never really expect Jim Mickle to present a story about the downside of violence, like Cold in July seems to be at the start, but about halfway through he’s set up for a truly exciting blend of neo-noir and the emerging “southern” genre. But it’s all downhill, as each turn takes us farther from a tightly-woven, interesting story, and closer to the jumbled mess of yet another splatter film ending.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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