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 A 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:
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:
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:
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:
Cut out to a medium on Richard as Russel crosses left to right and Richard’s eyeline follows him:
The next shot establishes the layout. Russel is now across the room at the phone booth, which is where Richard’s gaze is directed:
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:
Back to Russel as he fumbles on the phone and then tighter on Richard as he continues watching:
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:
Closer now on the young boy and we see that he too has red straws in his hand:
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:
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:
A new character is introduced here. The glass behind her gives us a frame of reference for where (and thereby who) she is-
-but it’s the rack focus to the kid in the foreground that orients us again:
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:
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.