Cold in July

Texas mean. Texas hard.

Texas mean. Texas hard.

(2014) Thriller (IFC) Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw, Nick Damici, Wyatt Russell, Lanny Flaherty, Ken Holmes, Rachel Zeigler-Haag, Tim Lajcik, Brianda Agramonte, Kristin Griffith, Joe Lanza, Laurent Rejto, Brogan Hall, Joseph Anthony Jerez, Joseph Harrell, Happy Anderson, Kris Elvers, Gregory Russell Cook, Soraya Butler, Rosemary Howard. Directed by Jim Mickle

In Texas, things come extra value sized. Go big or go home isn’t just a pithy phrase in Texas; it’s a way of life. Big hair, big horns, big cattle, big oil, big football, big brisket, big portions, everything is larger than life. That’s just the way it’s done in the Lone Star State.

Richard Dane (M.C. Hall) wakes up one hot summer night in 1989 to the words any husband most dreads to hear from his wife (Shaw); “Honey, I think I heard a noise downstairs.” As he comes to wakefulness, he hears the noises too and realizes there’s an intruder in the house. As any good Texas husband and father does, he has a gun for protection. He loads it, shaking like a leaf – Richard is not a violent man by nature. He goes downstairs and surprises a man robbing him. The man shines a flashlight in Richard’s face. He can’t see what’s happening; it could be the guy is pulling a gun of his own. Richard shoots and hits the intruder right between the eyes.

Richard is devastated. To the police, it’s a cut and dried case. The guy was robbing him and Richard had no way of knowing if the man was armed – although he was not. However, he had a rap sheet a mile long and Richard is a good citizen. The detective in charge, Ray Price (Damici), tells him gently not to worry about it; “Sometimes the good guy wins.”

Not everyone feels the same way, particularly the victim’s father Ben Russell (Shepard). Ben, an ex-con, is an eye for an eye kind of guy and when he sees Richard at his son’s sparsely-attended funeral, he makes sure that Richard knows that he isn’t going to get away scot-free, giving him an eerie “That son of yours. He looks just like you.” Cape Fear, here we come.

But that’s not how it plays out. This new thriller from director Jim Mickle (Stake Land) takes a couple of about faces during the course of the movie as we find out that things aren’t necessarily what they seem to be and not everyone who wears a badge can be trusted – nor can every ex-con be feared. This is Texas noir and if it smacks of Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson, well you can thank author Joe Lansdale who wrote the novel that this is based on.

The three leads also have a lot to do with it. Hall as Richard Dane is distinctly un-Dexter  like; lacking the confidence and conviction of that character, all the two have in common is that they have taken life. Dane makes up for his somewhat mousy demeanor with dogged determination and a sense of justice that gets offended more than once during the course of the film. Shepard takes a page out of Robert Mitchum’s book, making Russell menacing and evil until about midway through the movie when we begin to find out more about him and what drives him. The two sides of the role are a tough nut to crack for any actor but Shepard happens to be one of the stronger character actors in Hollywood and he is more than equal to the task.

The one role we haven’t mentioned is that of Don Johnson. Jim Bob Luke, a detective that is brought in during the second half of the film, is everything Texas – a larger than life personality, 10 gallon hat, bright red convertible with steer horns on the grille, a belt buckle the size of a basketball, and an eye for the ladies. He absolutely steals the picture and is worth the price of admission alone.

Mickle keeps the tension high from the opening scene of Hall being awakened by his wife to the final denouement. He is aided by Jeff Grace who supplies an electronic score that recalls that of John Carpenter’s horror films of the late ’80s and creates an expectation of real bad things to come. For those of a certain age, it will be a bit of a nostalgia-fest  as when Jim Bob, with his huge cell phone steps out of his car yelling into the receiver “I can’t hear you. I’m getting about one word in three. Is this any better?” as he walks around looking for a sweet spot.

Some of the moral terrain negotiated by the movie can get a little bit rough; this is rated “R” for a reason. Some sensitive sorts may find this ultra-disturbing. Still, this is the kind of thriller that crawls under your skin and burrows there, refusing to budge until you’ve seen it all. Mickle is clearly someone to look out for and even if you don’t live in Texas, you’ll appreciate this slice o’ juicy Lone Star cinematic heaven.

REASONS TO GO: Texas noir. Fine performances by Hall, Shepard and Johnson. Love the score.

REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a twist too many for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a fair amount of violence, some of it bloody and disturbing. There’s also some nudity and sexual situations as well as a plentitude of blue language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Joe Lansdale, the author of the book the movie is based on, makes a cameo as a priest at the grave of the robber that Richard Dane shot and killed.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Texas Killing Fields

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Swinging With the Finkels

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