Cold in July (Mickle, 2014)

Cold in July is one of the better new films I’ve seen this year. Joe R. Lansdale’s plotting is fantastic (makes me want to read the book), and Jim Mickle (whose We Are What We Are I enjoyed) takes it to a new level.

The main cast is basically three, and they’re all strong. Michael C. Hall plays Richard Dane, blue-collar framer who kills an intruder in his home; Sam Shepard plays ex-con Russel, the possible father of the victim; Don Johnson plays Jim Bob, a former contact of Russel’s who reunites with his old friend to find revenge.

There’s a definite History of Violence vibe, but Cold in July is its own animal. There’s a really awesome bit of misdirection that takes place around the 35 minute mark, totally re-charting the course of the film.

Mickle and cinematographer Ryan Samul have style. Sometimes it’s really playful, like where this blood splatter over a ceiling light renders the remainder of the scene in a reddish tint:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.46.43 AM Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.46.53 AM

Mickle also has a penchant for nice inserts that speak to the mood and location (the rural location alongside some suburban sprawl of this film is heavily in here), like this one of Richard’s Mercury headlights before he pulls his car away on a dangerous mission:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 12.20.54 AM

Similar to something I discussed in a post on Raoul Ruiz’s great Three Lives and Only One Death  there are shots in the climactic shootout using either a split diopter (which I only recently learned about from a commenter on this blog) or a split screen in order to keep foreground and background simultaneously in focus:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.46.14 AM

But aside from all of this fun technique, the great plotting and awesome performances, the reason that Cold in July stands out from other thrillers are all of the little character development scenes. There’s a great one with Richard and his family at a railroad crossing. And there’s another awesome here. Richard and Russel, having formed a tentative, potentially lethal bond stop off at a diner.

Mickle starts the scene with a low-angle 2-shot, and then cuts medium close to Russel’s hands as he plays with a red straw:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.41.26 AM Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.41.44 AM

Cut out to a medium on Richard as Russel crosses left to right and Richard’s eyeline follows him:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.42.01 AM Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.42.15 AM

The next shot establishes the layout. Russel is now across the room at the phone booth, which is where Richard’s gaze is directed:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.42.27 AM

There’s a cut to a young child. At first we might not know where he is in the restaurant, but Mickle has done a few smart things. The child is looking frame right in the same way that Richard is (i.e. at Russel) and Mickle has also used that glass divider in both Richard’s POV (the shot above) and behind the child (the shot below). So not we know where everyone is:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.42.37 AM

Back to Russel as he fumbles on the phone and then tighter on Richard as he continues watching:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.42.54 AM Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.43.09 AM

At this point the suspense is good. We’ve already scene Russel potentially threatening Richard’s son. So Russel + a child does not necessarily = anything good. Pushing in on Richard emphasizes the tension. Who is Russel calling? Should Richard be worried?

And now Mickle gets closer. He cuts into a medium on Russel, which tilts down back to those red straws:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.43.21 AM Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.43.42 AM

Closer now on the young boy and we see that he too has red straws in his hand:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.43.53 AM

Closer again (classic suspense: move the camera closer to your characters) on Russel, now in a closeup, and back to Richard, closer still on him:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.44.12 AM Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.44.24 AM

We hear only snippets of Russel’s conversation. We know he’s calling someone else in. But we’re not quite sure yet if this scene is going to erupt in violence, just peter out, or do something else entirely.

Back to Russel, he hangs up and there’s a tilt down, again to those straws:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.44.42 AM

A new character is introduced here. The glass behind her gives us a frame of reference for where (and thereby who) she is-

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.44.54 AM

-but it’s the rack focus to the kid in the foreground that orients us again:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.45.05 AM

And then, just as the scene has slowly reached something like a climax – an oblivious mother, a young curious boy, a suspicious bystander, a dangerous criminal – we get the concluding shot. A closeup on the boy, which pulls focus to Russel’s hand. He drops a red-straw character that he’s twisted together in front of the boy and walks off:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 10.45.20 AM

The scene is truly fantastic for a number of reasons. Firstly, without the use of a wide-shot, it easily establishes space; secondly, it slowly builds to some real tension; thirdly, it gives us a nice window into this character (Russel) who we’ve known little of at this point and have likely stereotyped in an entirely different way; lastly it changes the direction of the film entirely, from straight-forward actioner to something new.

And that’s not even mentioning the great yellow/blue/purple color scheme going on here.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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One Response to Cold in July (Mickle, 2014)

  1. Pingback: Best Films of 2014 | dcpfilm

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