Monday, June 2, 2014

Cold in July [2014]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB ()  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
ChicagoTribune (B. Sharkey) review (S. Abrams) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Cold in July [2014] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Jim Mackle along with Nick Damici based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale [IMDb]) is a hard-R “Texas Noir” tale that’s not for the squeamish.   Then again, “Noir” films have never been exactly “light” in nature.  Indeed, the French didn’t coin them “Noir” (dark) for nothing.  Even in their golden age, in the 1940s-50s, these films tended to be descents into "black holes" of dysfunction and Evil that approached the unpresentable.  And at the center of a classic film noir story would always be some "unspeakable secret" that only upon its discovery would render the behavior those effected by it ("caught in its orbit") explicable.  Mores may change, but even today the 1950s films would leave most viewers with a shudder.

Okay, what's this story about?  The story set in 1989 begins with a random / regular East Texas couple, Richard and Ann Dane (played by Michael C. Hall and Vinessa Shaw), being woken-up in the middle of the night with the sound of an intruder inside their house.  Being (East) Texan, upon realizing that his house is probably being broken into, Richard jumps out of bed and heads quickly to the closet where he has his revolver.  Being a good, salt-of-the-earth East Texan, who follows good fire-arms safety practices, Richard keeps the revolver unloaded, with a small box of bullets nearby.  Most of us could probably relate to him as we watch him nervously, hands-shaking load his six-shooter with the requisite bullets before heading out the couple's bedroom to face whatever awaits him downstairs.  As he heads down the hall to the stairs, he stops to check on his young, 8-10 year old son in the bedroom next door (he's safe asleep) and then continues down the stairs ...

Below in the living room, he encounters an intruder, who, startled turns to face him.  Identifying him as someone he clearly did not know, Richard fires and shoots him in the head, dead.  Blood and pieces of bone/brains splatter on the wall behind the intruder and the intruder, becoming a bloody mess even as he drops, crumples onto a couch that the Danes had there against the wall.

The Danes call the police, who soon arrive.  Much of the night is taken-up with the police writing-up the crime scene.  The body's eventually taken away.  Richard is asked by the police to come to the station to give a statement, assured by the small town's chief of police (played by Nick Damici), a friend, that he didn't do anything but act in self-defense.  So he goes down to the station, the chief of police himself takes his statement.  And finally, near dawn, Richard returns home.

The film documents then quite well the next day's small town chaos.  Richard and Ann again are "regular people" living in a "regular town."  So the story of a local resident / neighbor / friend, shooting a burglar in his house quickly becomes news all across town.  Richard goes into a diner and everyone wants to buy him breakfast.  Ann, a middle-school teacher, is rather irritated that all her 7th graders want her to talk about is about how her husband "blew-away the burglar."  And then they have a kid in 3rd or 4th grade and a house with blood and bits of the burglar's head sill splattered on back wall of the living room, a couch and possibly a carpet ruined by said burglar's blood and various photos and other keepsakes splattered by blood as well.  Taking care of all that awaits them when they get home.

I found the film's documentation of this unwanted yet necessary if also rather distasteful "chore" of "cleaning up the mess" remarkably well done.  And it's another invitation to the audience to identify with this "regular family."  It clearly had to "suck" to have to clean-up the house after this terrible, violent and thankfully _brief_ incident (that could have actually ended worse) that took place in their home: Richard comes home with a new couch in the bed of his truck.  Ann rolls her eyes because he's, of course, bought the wrong couch (with a rather ugly gold and black checkered motif) when "they had decided" that the new couch should have had the same, more cheerful, pastel colored "flowery motiff" as the old one had (the one now covered in blood...).   While Richard was out quickly buying the wrong couch, Ann's also called over workmen to repaint the famous 'blood-splattered wall," behind the once flowery, now blood drenched couch that they have to get rid of.  As Richard enters with the poorly considered new couch, we see one of the workmen dutifully "plastering over the bullet hole" left in the wall ...

Admitedly, I've gone to town here describing the first part of the movie, because, truth be told, if the story had happened to us or to a neighbor and just ended here, it'd still be remembered "as an event" to be recalled in family and neighborhood lore for years to come AND YET, THIS WAS JUST THE PROLOGUE TO THE PROLOGUE TO THE STORY TO COME.

The story descends to a new, "Cape Fearish" level when Richard stops by the police station a day or two later and told by his friend, the chief of police, that (1) some church chipped in to buy a casket for the burglar that Richard had shot dead in his living room and the burial was to take place at some cemetery outside of town later that day, and (2) that the crook that Richard shot dead was the son of some felon recently released after serving many, many years in jail: "The s*&t doesn't fall far from the tree" the chief of police adds.

Richard, good decent Southern Man that he is (Lynyrd Skynyrd honestly could have made a song about him), decides to go out to the cemetery to see the poor guy that he had shot dead being buried.  A pastor's there, the grave diggers are there, and ... well, so is the dead burglar's "dad" (played to a truly well-calibrated level of "troubled-ness" by Sam Shepard).  "Dad" might not have been there for his son since, "oh, about the age of your's there Richard" (A picture of Richard, Ann and their eight year old son had made the local paper in the hoopla of the recent days' past..) but ... he kinda felt he need to "set things right" for him now that he (dad) was out (and his son's now tragically dead).

Now what the heck would "setting things right" mean in this context to this poor, quite scary-looking recently released felon?  Was he threatening Richard?  Kinda looked like it.  The poor dead burglar's dad (named actually Russell) starts hanging out by Richard's son's school, breaks into their house again (but as a former time-serving felon, he seemed to be "more professional" and certainly "less noisy" about it ...).  Eventually, Richard heads over to the police station "for protection," which the chief of police, again a friend, is quick to offer / provide. 

HOWEVER ... when Richard's there in the police station, filing the requisite paperwork for an Order of Protection he notices on the board the "Wanted Poster" still with the name of the burglar that he supposedly shot in his house.  And he quickly tells his friend, the town's chief of police, "Hey is this the guy who I supposedly shot?  He doesn't look ANYTHING like the burglar that I killed in my house." "Well, it's an old, poorly made mug-shot." "Nah, the shot's not that poor.  He's a totally different guy."  "Richard, no, you shot this guy."

Okay, you get the picture ... the rest of the story follows.  During the rest of the story that follows, Richard's able to convince the rather scary, disturbed, but mostly old, Russell (the "dad" of the "son" that he supposedly shot dead in his living room) that he really didn't kill his son.  And that, of course, would take some convincing since both Richard and Russell saw someone being buried in that pine box in that cemetery that fateful aftertoon when they met.  So (1) who did Richard actually kill? And (2) if Russell's son wasn't in that box, where was he? 

To help them out, Russell calls an old friend, perhaps his only remaining friend, a buddy he served with in the Korean War named Jim Bob (played again quite well by aging Miami Vice alum Don Johnson).  He "arrives in style," driving a big "Texas sized" red cadilac convertible with Texas Long Horn" horns on the front of it, and well, works as a "private eye."

What does Jim Bob dig up?  A story, that's IMHO still worthy of the lengthy set-up.  For yes folks, THIS STORY IS STILL NOT NEARLY YET OVER.  There are still a number of levels more to descend in this tale of increasing corruption and, as the levels go deeper, increasing depravity.

And I write this because a truly noirish story worthy of the genre could not end with simply at the doorstep of an incompetent and perhaps somewhat corrupt "small town police department."  That's small potatoes.  For the secret to descent into truly UNSPEAKABLE territory, to be truly depraved, it has to go deeper than that.  And ... it does.  And IMHO the film does leave the viewer new, rather visceral insight into how "the Law" could be co-opted into the service of Crime (and why Southerners are often SO SKEPTICAL of Government / "the Law")  And then if the Criminals are protected by "the Law" how far their Crimes can go?   Well ... purty far ...

Again, this film is certainly not for the li'l ones nor for the squeamish (by the end, the film is certainly  a hard-R) but it's also not without its point.

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  1. Father, yesterday I read the first paragraph of your review of Cold in July, but I decided I'd see the film, and indeed I did see it on PPV last night. Today I read your entire review. Yes, of course, it is a hard "R" as you put it, and the book author and filmmakers did venture into that noirest of noir realm.

    I thought this film was worth seeing primarily because I love the work of Michael C. Hall, but I must say even as I expect him to be great, his performance as Richard Dane was at a peak level here. It was amazing to see him changing his persona, character and even his personality as the film progressed down that horrific path. Hall is known as an over-the-top actor, and I will just note that he has played the role of the MC in the disturbing Broadway show, Cabaret. Hall’s excellent southern accent is honest because he does hail from North Carolina, and that explains why his portrayal of a southern man didn’t sound at all fake, as it normally does in film. Vinessa Shaw, as his wife Ann, was so totally believable as his mate and at times antagonist, which felt very normal to me. These names, Richard and Ann, can you possibly get more normal than that?

    I will mention briefly that I thought Sam Shepard, as Ben Russell, was weak. Yes, I understand your inference that he was understated in a very effective way, but he could never convince me that he was all that threatening or that he actually wanted to make up for lost time with his son, or that he was motivated enough to perform his final “fatherly” act, which in this particular case is not at all a paternal instinct. I just wasn’t convinced. There’s not much positive I could see in Don Johnson’s performance. I’m preconditioned to expect him to be a subpar actor, and I was therefore not disappointed. Johnson has made living in Hollywood for 45 years from just being handsome, but that’s not enough for me.

    Finally, there have been so many references to the noir in this film, but I wasn’t convinced of its authenticity. Yes, of course, just the idea of it is disturbing, but there were at least 16 of these “products” made by these horrible people. I’m not convinced that you make that many of that type, assuming that you are doing it for profit and not as a sadist.

    Father, all-in-all, it was a better than average film, and I appreciate that with your three stars you did not go overboard on your rating; however, I’m wondering if you could develop your thoughts a bit on the “point” you took. I assume you meant that there was something redeeming someplace in this movie. I’m always looking for deep meaning in drama, which is why I read your reviews; but in this case, I didn’t see it. The gold standards in that noir-with-meaning category must remain, The Place Beyond the Pines, Eastern Promises and No Country for Old Men.

    1. First, thanks George for your well articulated comment!

      I suppose the aspect that I found redeemable in the film was that it certainly portrayed Evil as real (and not in some goofy head-spinning sort of way) but rather as really, objectively present in the world today, perhaps existing a few steps removed from our day-to-day existence, but just "scratch below the surface" and it is there.

      I've long understood "Film Noir" as involving some "unspeakable secret' that when revealed brings sense to the behavior of the characters surrounding it. I think of Humphrey Bogart films like The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo and the Big Sleep. To me the Film Noir story line "par excellance" can be found the Jack Nichoslon film Chinatown [1974] (the conspiracy being first hidden and then finally revealed involved actually the story of the previously hidden and rather ugly story of the development of Los Angeles, specifically its previously completely desert San Fernando Valley).

      In the case of the current film, the central protagonist finds himself sucked into a conspiracy that was bigger than he could ever have imagined and arguably quite "unspeakable."

      To get into details involves spoilers, so I'm issuing a SPOILER ALERT for the remainder of this note. I see the "unspeakable secret" of this film in two parts:

      (1) The "Witness Protection programs" in our country could be compromised -- that they may not be used to simply protect _witnesses_ against organized crime. INSTEAD, they could ALSO be _used by Organized Crime itself_ to protect its criminals and its criminal operations,

      (2) What kind of operations could Organized Crime be using Witness Protection Programs to provide cover for? Well, AMONG THEM ... its most vicious PORN OPERATIONS.

      Today, the internet IS AWASH IN PORN and it's not necessarily a bad thing for viewers of this films to be reminded that people providing Porn in the past WERE NOT EXACTLY "GOOD PEOPLE." So to think of porn production today as "voluntary" / "consensual" MAY NOT BE TRUE. Once "one is tied up" ... ONE REALLY IS AT THE MERCY OF "THE GOOD PEOPLE" doing the shooting (filming OR OTHERWISE...).

      I do see a value the such otherwise _unspeakable_ messages told in films like this one: STAY AWAY FROM PORN - certainly its production - as one honestly doesn't know what one is getting into. And even to VIEWERS OF PORN: Be warned that what one sees in Porn may not be as "consensual" or otherwise "fun for the participants" as it seems. PORN WILL PROBABLY ALWAYS BE A DIRTY BUSINESS AND AT ITS WORST PEOPLE (usually women / the young) DIE.

      Anyway, I see this film as redeemable as a warning and perhaps as a "glimpse" into a world that most of us, upon seeing said glimpse would NEVER, EVER WANT TO GET INTO.

  2. Exquisite comment about witness protection. Really.

    I know you're a great homilist. I wish I could hear you at 8:00 AM on Sunday or 6:00 PM on Saturday. Being a cradle Episcopalian, I truly appreciate that you attempted to allow your reader to understand your thoughts without being preachy and giving your reader/congregant room to think.