PARK CITY - Four features into his career, any words along the lines of “look out for Jim Mickle” are beginning to feel somewhat redundant – we’re looking, and he keeps showing up, nailing one nifty little genre film after another. To describe him as “going places” is to imply that there’s somewhere else he needs to be: Hollywood, perhaps, where his jacknife formal discipline and rowdy sense of humor would enliven any number of multiplex entertainments.
But that’d be to deny us more of his strange, slippery and often gleefully brutal genre hybrids on the independent front. And after 2010’s sharp vampire-zombie fusion “Stake Land” and last year’s frankly superior remake of cannibal drama “We Are What We Are,” Mickle’s hot streak is still intact: “Cold in July
,” which sees him graduate to Dramatic Competition status at Sundance, is a cracking domestic thriller, playing a little like David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” structurally smashed to a pulp – with the emphasis firmly on “pulp.”
Based on a 1989 crime novel by prolific genre everyman Joe R. Lansdale, Mickle’s adaptation allegedly honors its broken-backed mystery narrative, but its fidelity doesn’t stop there – frozen in a late-80s vision of East Texas, awash with period synths and iffy hair, “Cold in July” honors the crisp, cutting B-movies of John Carpenter and Walter Hill as much as it does the source material at hand. Not that it’s particularly fawning or derivative: the film’s on-a-dime segue from lean suspense exercise to Grand Guignol midnight freakout – all via one elegantly simple MacGuffin – disorientingly blurs story worlds in a manner that evokes no one so much as Mickle himself.
He’s also found a suitably hungry leading man for the enterprise. The excellent Michael C. Hall
, he of the comfortingly regular features and coolly withdrawn screen presence, is perhaps the kind of star who might have headlined more movies in 1989 – sporting a fetching mullet-‘n’-mustache combo, TV’s erstwhile Dexter is an ideal fit for a character who appears equally drawn by family-man and action-man impulses. He plays Richard Dane, a frame-store owner whose placid domestic life with his wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) and their young son is already marked by twitches of dissatisfaction; when he accidentally shoots and kills a home intruder one evening, his shell-shock seemingly gives way to a reluctant curiosity about his own capacity for violence.
Which is just as well, since a whole lot more of that is coming his way – and not just in the shape of his victim’s grizzled ex-con of a dad (a fuzzy-haired but campily menacing Sam Shepard
), who sets about psychologically torturing the Dane family with ninja efficiency. So the stage is set for a home invasion thriller of a particularly merciless tenor – which, after a good 40 minutes of skittering tension and thunderclap scares, would do very nicely.
But Mickle has other plans, few of them easy to reveal without spoiling the escalatingly bloody fun – suffice to say they involve as healthy shot of mistaken identity, a queasy video-nasty subplot that extends the film’s ties with 1980s horror, and, most deliciously, Don Johnson
as a Stetson-wearing pig farmer. (Don’t ask, just savor.)
It’s about as silly a progression as it sounds, and I never quite stopped missing the film’s initial, more minimal genre guise, but the switch is pulled off with such lurid aplomb that it’s hard to complain. Mickle’s increasingly exacting sense of craft is a tingly thrill in itself here, from the whipcrack timing of his grimmest reveals to the Moroder-style mania of Jeff Grace’s tremendous score. Made with unfashionable care, its scuzziness lent dignity by Hall’s committed performance, “Cold in July” would feel retro even if it wasn’t set in 1989: it’s exploitation cinema that kills and caresses in equal measure.