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Review: Sam Shepherd Heats Up ‘Cold In July’

New Film Based on Joe R. Lansdale’s Novel

Above: Michael C. Hall and Sam Shepherd star in "Cold in July," adapted from Joe R. Lansdale's novel.

Aired 5/30/14 on KPBS News.

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Cold in July."

Transcript

In a summer of superhero action, "Cold in July" (opening May 30 for one week only at Landmark's Ken Cinema) brings conflicts down to a human scale.

When Rich Dane (Michael C. Hall of Showtime's Dexter) kills an intruder in his home one night, he's severely shaken both by the threat the man posed to his family and by the fact he had to take a life. But Dane is even less prepared for what follows. The police tell him the man was Freddy Russell, a wanted criminal whose father Ben (Sam Shepherd) has just been released from jail. So naturally Dane feels threatened when Ben crosses his path and makes veiled threats against his family.Then something even more unsettling happens. Dane suspects the police lied about who the intruder was. He can't understand what their motivation could be but if he's right, it means he did not kill Ben's son.

Companion Viewing

"Paris, Texas" (1984)

"Bubba Ho-Tep" 2002

"We Are What We Are" (2013)

Based on Joe R. Lansdale's novel, the film "Cold in July" has gaping plot holes (mostly involving the police) and aggravating music cues (by Jeff Grace) but I can forgive all that thanks to the trio of actors headlining the film. Hall plays against his Dexter image as an average Joe who does not handle violence well. Don Johnson takes on the role of Jim Bob, Ben's friend and a recurring character in Lansdale's work. He goes over the top for the win, offering a contrast to Hall's nervous vulnerability and Shepherd's laconic naturalism. Shepherd truly anchors the film with his pared down performance and unfussy honesty. Shepherd, also a gifted playwright, reportedly wrote the dialogue for a final pivotal scene in the film, and he nails it.

"Cold in July" sets us up for a revenge story but shifts gears to deliver a perverse meditation on family and on a parent's responsibility for a child. Dane is willing to kill to protect his family, and Ben is eager to kill to settle a score. The two men are set in contrast to each other. We see Dane early on with his son and disciplining him for playing with a toy gun and pretending to shoot him. Perhaps it's this kind of parental influence that Freddy never got from Ben, who exited his son's life when Freddy was still a child. But Ben reaches a point where he assumes responsibility for who his son grew up to be, and it's one of the film's most poignant and unsettling moments.

Credit: IFC

Don Johnson plays Jim Bob, a recurring Joe R. Lansdale character, in "Cold in July."

Director Jim Mickle previously delivered the savvy remake "We Are What We Are" (based on the Mexican cannibal horror film of the same title). Both that film and "Cold in July" portray familial ties that lead to violence and some disturbing family dynamics. In "We Are What We Are" he wrapped those familial themes in a horror film; in "Cold in July," he wraps them in the trappings of a crime thriller. The results are films that mix elements with refreshing results. In both films, Mickle displays a flair for a slow burn narrative style and an assured ratcheting up of tension. He also knows how to handle violence. He knows when to keep it off screen and when to show the gore. In fact the most disturbing violence is the violence we don't see, and what we do see isn't sexy, stylized action, but a grittier approach that shows the unpleasant consequences of violence.

"Cold in July" (rated R for disturbing bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity) suffers from poor plotting but soars with a stellar cast.

Check out the trailer.

Video

Trailer: 'Cold in July'

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