The tightly coiled Texas-set thriller "Cold in July" bites like a cranky Copperhead when poked with a stick.
Part of what makes this lurid film noir about a group of men wrestling with the dark underbelly of late '80s suburbia so memorable is its three-pack of outstanding performances.
"Dexter's" Michael C. Hall effectively sheds the shackles of his iconic TV serial-killer role to play the vaguely similar but quite different character of Richard Dane, a dweeby family guy who finds his small world forever changed after he inadvertently kills a burglar in his home. Veteran actor and playwright Sam Shepard adds a sense of menace to the part of a vengeance-seeking mystery man who calls on Richard's family once Richard mops up after the bloody slaying. But it's Don Johnson, as a pig farmer and private investigator with a swagger and style all his own (thank God), who steals the show.
"Cold in July" opens with what appears to be a cut-and-dried case of Richard (Hall) having killed an intruder during a run-of-the-mill home robbery. Then it slithers off -- as film noirs often do -- into unexpected dark tunnels, dredging up issues about fathers and sons and murder along the way.
Intense and funny in parts, "Cold in July" further solidifies Jim Mickle's reputation as one of the best genre directors working today.
Never heard of him? Not surprising. The Pennsylvania-born director specializes in taking disturbing subject matter and framing it as if on an artist's canvas. He dabbles often in horror, a genre too frequently dismissed.
He and collaborator Nick Damici, who co-stars in and cowrote "Cold in July," take tired, even if true, concepts and make them provocative. In 2010 they splattered a fresh coat of blood on the vampire tradition with the religion-infused "Stake Land." In 2013 they came up with an unsettling portrait of family dysfunction in the highly creepy "We Are What We Are," about a clan of backwoods cannibals. Now the duo, whose first film together was 2006's "Mulberry Street," stake a claim on pulp fiction and give us something beyond the standard shadows and fog.
The source material -- a novel by the highly respected Joe R. Lansdale -- deserves special honors, since it's responsible for putting fuel into this film's bustling engine. As in any film noir, there's more at play than what meets the eye, and screenwriters Mickle and Damici take full advantage, peeling back the layers to expose the evil festering beneath the suburban carpet. There's David Lynch-style ugliness afoot, but the brutal violence serves a purpose.
The performances are likewise restrained. Hall, donning an understated mullet, shows dexterity playing a man whose innocence is tested. Shepard delves into unexpected, tortured emotions while Vinessa Shaw, playing Richard's wife, provides a clear vision of what late '80s Texas was really like.
But it is Johnson who truly shines. The "Miami Vice" star doesn't skate by on his charisma and bad-boy essence but makes the larger-than-life character of Jim Bob more than a stereotype, revealing hints of compassion along with the cockiness.
These unique characters and performances breathe life into the moody world Mickle creates in this vivid, shocking thriller that sticks with you long afterward.
'Cold in july'
* * * ½
Cast: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson
Director and co-writer: Jim Mickle
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes