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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Killshot


Killshot

Diane Lane wonders why she doesn't get more roles in romantic comedies, while Thomas Jane ponders why their names both rhyme.

(Weinstein) Diane Lane, Mickey Rourke, Thomas Jane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Hal Holbrook, Don McManus, Aldred Wesley Montoya. Directed by John Madden

One of the most notable writers of “hard-boiled” fiction in the history of the genre is Elmore Leonard. He’s right up there with guys like Dash Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. Among the novels written by Leonard that have been adapted for the screen are Get Shorty and Out of Sight. He’s also written a number of westerns, as well as screenplays of his own. He’s considered one of the better writers of the latter half of the 20th century to come out of the United States, and even today, well into his 80s, continues to write at a respectable clip.

For awhile, it was fashionable to option his material by the various studios and one of those snatched up by them was this novel, which at one time had names like John Travolta, Sandra Bullock and Viggo Mortensen attached to the property. However, as Leonard’s work which is full of colorful characters, vicious violence and complex plots, many studios found it was very difficult and sometimes impossible to translate his work to the screen.

After nearly a decade in development hell and more than four years after filming wrapped on the project, the movie has finally seen the light of day. Usually that’s a pretty sure sign that the movie is nigh on unwatchable. So is that the case here?

Blackbird (Rourke) is a Native American hitman for the Toronto mob who apparently couldn’t find any Native Canadians. He has survived due to his coolness in chaotic situations, and because he never ever leaves a witness who can identify him. During a routine hit on a rival Mafiosi, he is forced to cap the girlfriend of the victim because she has seen his face. This doesn’t sit well with his employers and Blackbird is forced on the lam, returning to his native Michigan to perhaps get out of the game for good (since his erstwhile employers know nothing about who Blackbird really is).

There, he falls in with a small-time crook named Johnny Nix (Gordon-Levitt), a brash and arrogant sort with a real anger management problem, coupled with an impulse control issue which makes life around him rather interesting. Johnny also has a sexually frustrated girlfriend named Donna (Dawson) who, while suspicious of Blackbird, also takes a bit of a liking to him. Nix plans to blackmail a wealthy real estate agent Nelson Davies (McManus) and takes Blackbird along as intimidation.

Working for Davies is Carmen Colson (Lane), whose marriage to her husband Wayne (Jane) is disintegrating. Wayne is actually dropping some paperwork off for Carmen at her office when Nix and Blackbird come to pay Davies a visit; Davies, aware of what’s happening, has arranged to be far away and neglected to tell Carmen to do the same. The somewhat dim Nix mistakes Wayne for a wealthy real-estate agent, but Wayne doesn’t take kindly to being threatened and tosses Nix out of a plate glass window. Carmen manages to alert the authorities, but not before catching a full glimpse of Blackbird’s face through the window, which Blackbird is fully aware of.

Now things are really in a mess. Nix wants nothing more than to make Wayne pay for all his humiliation and suffering, but Blackbird has bigger fish to fry. Not only can Carmen identify him, she can also bring the Toronto mob right to his doorstep. They will need to eliminate the couple, but on their first attempt they botch the job, which captures the FBI’s attention. The two are promptly put in a witness relocation program and flee to Missouri and, with only each other to rely on, actually begin to make progress in repairing their marriage. However, Blackbird cleverly fakes his own death, bringing the two of them back home where he and Nix plan to finish what they started.

As I mentioned earlier on, the movie has had a checkered past of shelf time, pushed-back release dates and much re-cutting and re-shooting. Director Madden, who previously helmed Shakespeare in Love and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin hasn’t had a lot of experience with this kind of pulp novel background (although he’s done some TV mysteries in his native England) and it shows here. The violence needed to be notched up a level or two; it would have suited the material better.

As you would expect with a movie that has been reshot and re-edited several times, the flow of the film doesn’t always work. At times the pacing is stodgy and slow, at other times it moves at breakneck speed. It’s like a sportscar whose transmission needs work; you expect something a little faster out of a sleek little number like this.

The casting is pretty marvelous, with Rourke doing a nice turn as the regretful and world-weary Blackbird, who is simultaneously cold and pragmatic. Rourke is ideally cast here; he excels with roles that are multi-faceted and thoughtful but with a hard edge on the outside. His work alone is worth the price of a rental here.

Surprisingly, Lane and Jane elevate the movie further. Jane, who has taken a lot of critical heat for his post-Punisher performances, plays Wayne as a man who has made a mess of his marriage and knows it, but still has deep feelings for his wife. He plays a man who is lost without his wife, but not paralyzed; when push comes to shove he is willing to fight not only for his life and that of his wife, but also for his marriage as well. Lane, who has settled into a series of roles of dissatisfied middle-aged wives, is always an interesting actress, even if her part here is somewhat cliché.  

Unfortunately, this property has been mismanaged and it shows in the final product. The studio never seemed to have much faith in it, which is surprising considering the level of talent both before and behind the camera. This is one of Leonard’s more simple plotlines which would have made it easier to adapt but for whatever reason it didn’t turn out the way it should have. Chalk it up as one more failed adaptation, but at least there is enough about it that’s compelling to make it worth a look if you want to watch something different.

WHY RENT THIS: Rourke does a terrific job as he has been lately. The chemistry between Jane and Lane is genuine and their difficulties with their marriage elevate this from the run-of-the-mill thriller.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s been edited and re-edited several times and you can tell; the movie is a bit of a pastiche that at times doesn’t flow real well.

FAMILY VALUES: If “adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel” isn’t enough for you, try lots of violence, a great deal of foul language and a bit of nudity, all hallmarks of Elmore Leonard novels.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It took nearly four years from the completion of shooting until a meager five-screen release by the studio, which originally inherited the property as one of those that they received when the Weinsteins sold their interest in Miramax to Disney (1408 and Lucky Number Slevin were other movies that Weinstein also received). In the meantime, the role of a corrupt cop played by Johnny Knoxville was completely cut from the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.9M on an unreported production budget that I’d estimate to be about $10M; either way the movie is a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Brothers at War