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Expectations can be funny things. Before I sat down to watch writer-director Jim Mickle’s new film, Cold in July (2014), I was all but positive that it would be one of the year’s best films, hands down. After all, I’ve been a hardcore fan of Mickle and writing-partner Nick Damici ever since their exceptional debut, Mulberry St. (2006): over the course of three full-lengths, they’d yet to let me down once. In my mind, there was no way this could go wrong, even if it was the first explicitly non-horror related film for the pair. As luck would have it, however, I didn’t even really end up liking the film until roughly the midpoint and, despite a rousing finale, felt soundly disappointed by the time the end credits rolled. What, exactly, happened here? Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of it, shall we?

Cold in July, based on the novel of the same name by cult author Joe R. Lansdale, concerns itself with the aftermath of a home shooting. Specifically, nebbishy frame-store owner Richard Dane (Dexter’s Michael C. Hall) and his wife, Ann (Vinessa Shaw), are woken late one night by the sound of an intruder in their home. With his young son, Jordan (Brogan Hall) sleeping in another room, Rich springs into defense mode, even if his hands are shakier than a drunk at an open bar: he grabs his gun, heads downstairs and ends up face to face with a masked burglar. As the tense, silent stand-off stretches into minutes, the sudden shock of a clock going off blows Rich’s cool and causes him to blow a fist-sized hole in the intruder’s eye: exit one “bad guy,” enter one “reluctant hero.”

Since Rich killed the intruder in self-defense (despite the fact that the burglar was only armed with a flashlight), local sheriff Ray Price (co-writer Damici) tells him that he doesn’t have anything to worry about: just another low-life taken off the streets, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. According to the sheriff, the dead guy was a career criminal by the name of Freddy Russell: with his record, the sheriff figures Rich did the county a favor. When pressed about possible surviving relatives, the sheriff mentions that Freddy had a deadbeat father, Ben (Sam Shepard), who’s currently doing hard time in prison. Or he was, that is, until just recently: he’s been paroled. Cue the ominous music…cue Rich’s panicked eyes.

Faster than you can “trope,” Ben shows up in town with an intent that seems pretty crystal clear: he wants vengeance for the death of his only boy, even if he hadn’t seen him for at least a decade. Rich has a boy of his own, which Ben sees as a pretty fair trade for his own dead kid. When Rich goes to the sheriff, however, he’s met with the standard response: we can’t do anything until he actually does something. This, of course, isn’t quite what Rich wanted to hear: he knows that it’s only a matter of time before Ben makes his move and it’s scaring the living shit out of him.

Just when it seems as if the film is headed in a pretty obvious, revenge-based direction, ala Blue Ruin (2013), however, a huge twist throws everything on its ear and ends up resetting the various relationships. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the twist, although the film ends up treating it like a bigger mystery than it actually is (think more Hardy Boys than Chinatown (1974)). Needless to say, Rich and Ben find themselves on the same side, albeit reluctantly, as they face down what seems to be a very odd conspiracy. With the help of Ben’s old war buddy, private eye Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson), they may just have a shot at getting to the bottom of it all…or they may just die trying.

Up until the twist that turns the film in a completely different direction, I was extremely lukewarm on Cold in July. While the film looks amazing (the blue color scheme really drives home the film’s noir elements), there’s just something distinctly off about the first half. I definitely lay part of the blame on Hall, who never seems to inhabit his character in any realistic way but comes across as particularly awkward during the first 40 minutes or so: maybe it’s the weird accent that he’s trying or that ridiculous mustache that he’s saddled with but it always seems like Hall’s trying to keep character while dealing with some sort of constant technical difficulty. I’ll admit to not being as familiar with his work as others (I’ve seen some episodes of Dexter but have never seen Six Feet Under) but I always like what I saw: here, however, he just seems uncomfortable.

The beginning of the film is also so straight-forward as to be rather dull: it hits every single beat of the standard “sinister person hanging around and waiting to cause trouble” scenario and does nothing new with it whatsoever. To make matters worse, Vinessa Shaw’s portrayal of Ann is so aggressive and angry that it really throws the film for a tonal loop: as the couple are supposed to be worrying about a possible case of retribution, Ann is fixated on getting a new sofa and yells at Rich for seeming to take too much interest in the other situation…you know, the one that involves someone trying to kill them? Suffice to say that it was pretty impossible for me to suspend disbelief for the first reel, at least, of the film.

Once that twist gets introduced, however, the film sort of morphs into a gritty, ’80s-styled action film and the pulpy thrills are pretty undeniable. Finally, at this point, we end up getting some of that trademark Mickle/Damici insanity, including a real showstopper of a scene that manages to combine The Evil Dead (1981) and Natural Born Killers (1994) into one pretty (red-tinted-package). The final 30 minutes or so of the film are pretty much one big gunfight and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t thrilling as all get out. There’s also a really nice, genuinely emotional resolution to the main conflict that reminded me of classic Mickle films like Stake Land (2010): the film takes a long time to get there, mind you, but the payoff is nicely realized.

For my money, aside from the outstanding production values, there’s really only two reasons to see Cold in July: Sam Shepard and Don Johnson. Shepard is duly great as Ben, a genuinely scary individual who ends up being a lot more like Rich, by the end, than any of us could have thought possible. Shepard is so understated, yet epically powerful, that we buy him part and parcel as an unstoppable asskicker: the scene where he teaches the obnoxious local mailman (Lanny Flaherty) to be polite is a real fist-raiser, as is his transformation into a virtual Angel of Death by the finale. The real star of the show, however, is Don Johnson. Not only does he steal each and every scene he’s in but he’s one of my favorite characters in years: most of the good will the film built up with me was pretty much wholly down to Johnson’s performance. He’s funny, sweet, smart, ruthless and all-around awesome: Johnson hasn’t been this charismatic since the good old days and this should stand as proof that we need a lot more of him in the movies…let’s let the Don Johnson career resurgence start here!

Ultimately, it was hard for me to leave Cold in July without the nagging suspicion that this was all a sort of film exercise, similar to Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (1998). In this case, it often felt to me as if Mickle and Damici were attempting to replicate uncompromising, hard-edged and mean ’80s action films like The Evil That Men Do (1984) and Kinjite (1989): everything from the cinematography to the Carpenter-esque synth score to the snuff porn storyline seemed to point backwards towards these kinds of films, especially once we get to the action-packed climax. This impression is also driven home by the fact that the film is set in 1989 and prominently features video stores and VHS tapes: with all of the ’80s hints, it was kind of impossible for my mind to not get stuck in that particular decade. This could, of course, only be my reading of the film but it was an impression that never left me for nearly two hours, so I have a feeling my intuition might be on to something.

For the record, lest my words seem a bit too critical, Cold in July is not a bad film: to be honest, I’m not really sure that Mickle and Damici can make a bad film. It’s extremely well-made, features great performances from Johnson and Shepard and has some truly stellar action set-pieces. It’s also, without a doubt, a much lesser film than either Stake Land or its follow-up, Mickle and Damici’s remake of We Are What We Are (2013). As someone who pretty much worships the ground the duo walk on, I couldn’t help but be let down by a film that’s better than a lot of current movies but so much emptier than what they’ve done in the past. Needless to say, however, I’ll keep watching whatever they put out as long as they keep putting it out: despite the disappointment of Cold in July, Jim Mickle and Nick Damici are one of the most formidable teams in the business. My intuition tells me the next one is gonna be legendary.