Cold In July, film review: Jim Mickle's film has plenty of tension and menace but plot falls short

(15) Jim Mickle, 109 mins Starring: Michael C Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard
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This 1989-set film noir is stronger on character and atmosphere than it is on plotting. Early on, the director Jim Mickle does an excellent job in portraying the confusion, guilt and terror that family man Richard Dane (Michael C Hall) feels after shooting dead an intruder in his home. It doesn't help that the man's father (a very sour and sullen Sam Shepard) wants revenge or that the local cops are behaving in a suspicious manner.

From this starting point, the storytelling becomes both more complex and more wayward. We are dealing with the "Dixie Mafia" on the one hand, and with a pornographic snuff-movie ring on the other. The early part of the film is gritty and naturalistic but the arrival of Don Johnson (playing a detective/pig farmer) can't help but change the mood of the film. He is an incongruously flashy character in a story that is otherwise downbeat and subdued.

The film was adapted from a novel by Joe R Lansdale. Shepard reportedly re-wrote part of the screenplay. With its dark, Oedipal themes, the film echoes some of Shepard's own plays. One guesses that Sam Peckinpah and William Friedkin (among others) were strong influences on Mickle's approach to the thriller genre. He is certainly successful in generating a sense of tension and of menace. Individual sequences are brilliantly staged and shot but the film still has the feel of a formal exercise and the plot abounds in loose ends.