Laura Morgan attends FrightFest’s screening of Cold In July and is enchanted by a stylish slice of Southern Noir.
It’s become difficult to shoot movies set in the just-about-recent past without a sense of irony; a tongue-in-cheek ‘weren’t we all crazy back then?’ knowingness that undermines any possibility of connection with what’s real in a film. It’s all Tarantino’s fault, of course, but recent releases like American Hustle and The Wolf Of Wall Street (which, for all that it has its moments, is like a Comic Relief parody of its classier older brother, Goodfellas) have eagerly embraced the vogue for viewing the past through a stylised, overly nostalgic and inevitably distorting lens.
I loved lots about Jim Mickle’s Cold In July, but one of the aspects I loved most is its calm rejection of this tendency in favour of a straightforwardly honest depiction of what 1989 was like. And it’s spot-on: if you were alive in 1989 you’ll know that 1989 did look like this, even if you didn’t happen to be in Texas at the time. The one nod to ‘weren’t the eighties funny?’ comes in the shape of Don Johnson’s carphone, and the joke is good enough that I forgive it.
Because for a film that’s fantastically dark, Cold In July is funny. Some truly horrible things happen – one scene, in particular, drew an audible gasp from the audience – but that’s only a part of what you’ll walk away remembering. The unlikely trio at the heart of the story – Ordinary Joe Richard (Michael C. Hall), cowboy-hat-wearing private detective and pig farmer JimBob (Johnson) and hardened ex-con Ben (Sam Shepard) – are such well-drawn characters, the performances so pitch-perfect and the improbable relationship that develops between them so charming, that there’s plenty of scope for genuine laughter, rather than the hysterical kind we all experienced the first time we watched Michael Madsen cut off Kirk Baltz’s ear. These people feel real, and likeable, even when they’re in the middle of plotting mass murder.
I see I’ve gotten ahead of myself. The story, based on Joe Lansdale’s novel of the same name, begins when Richard kills an intruder in his home. When we see him switch on the lights to reveal the aftermath of his desperate act (and one reason we like Richard is that even before he loads the gun, we can see that he doesn’t want to use it: no bloodthirsty redneck, him) is the first shocking moment of the film, but by no means the last. As Richard heads further into a series of events which embroil him and his family in a web of crime, conspiracy and revenge we are slapped in the face repeatedly by violence, gore and explosions (at one point I was so startled I flung my hands up in the air, to the presumed bemusement of the people sitting behind me), but where the film really shines is in its depiction of lingering menace; of danger undefined but present; of something dark lurking in the shadows.
And it’s also a beautiful film; the steamy Texan heat almost palpable, the locations – especially the setting for the extraordinary final set-piece – enveloped in a gentle gothic splendour which never compromises the meticulously realised period details. More terrifying, after all, to find your life in danger, your values undermined and your questions unanswered amid surroundings that should be safe and familiar, than to walk into a haunted house knowing that you’re probably going to see a ghost. The atmosphere is only heightened by Jeff Grace’s fabulous score, which on its own is reason enough to see the film.
As various strands of the story combine we are dragged along with Richard into a series of events so complex that every time I thought I knew where the film it was going it surprised me. Stylistically it owes a debt to some of the great Southern Gothic pictures of the past – there are shades of Blood Simple, Cape Fear, Deliverance and even To Kill A Mockingbird – and the tortured family relationship at the heart of one sub-plot made me think more than anything of OldBoy, all of which is more of a recommendation than my endorsement. This is a stylish, assured and beautifully balanced thriller from a director who knows exactly what he’s doing, and given that it’s only his fourth feature and that he’s only in his mid-thirties, we should all be pretty excited about what comes next.
Cold In July is in cinemas from tomorrow. FrightFest runs at the Vue Leicester Square from 21-25 August.