Many of you have probably heard about that amusing anecdote behind classic noir film “The Big Sleep” (1946). Because the plot of Raymond Chandler’s equally famous novel is so convoluted, the director Howard Hawks and his screenplay writers were confused about who killed that chauffeur guy, so they sent a telegram to Chandler to get an answer, but even Chandler did not have the answer either (“They sent me a wire … asking me, and dammit I didn’t know either”).
While that infamous plot hole in question did not prevent “The Big Sleep” from being recognized as one of the great noir films from its era, I was constantly bothered by a couple of certain plot holes in “Cold in July”, which is, in objective view, a well-made noir film which also has a number of unexpected narrative turns to surprise and entertain you. The movie is rich in its local atmosphere to hold your attention, and it also has good performances to impress you, but its imperfections are a little too glaring for me to ignore even during the second watching which made me appreciate more the skills put behind the screen.
Like many noir films, the movie begins with its ordinary hero who suddenly happens to face something of which he has never been aware in his normal life. It is 1989 in Texas, and Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall), an average family guy running a frame shop in his hometown, is awakened by his wife Anne (Vinessa Shaw) during one night because she has just heard something strange in their house. It looks like someone has broken into the house, so Richard quietly and nervously loads a gun inherited from his father, and then he comes across a burglar at the living room. More agitated than before, Richard initially is at a loss, but, when the clock chimes right at that moment, he inadvertently pulls the trigger, and the burglar is instantly killed as a result.
The local police arrive at the scene not long after that while Richard and Ann still feel shaken by what happened to them. Ray Price (Nick Damici – he wrote the adapted screenplay with the director Jim Mickie, which is based on Joe R. Lansdale’s novel), a local cop in the charge of this case, assures Richard that there will be no serious problem, for it is pretty clear that Richard shot that burglar in an act of self-defense. In addition, he also notifies to Richard that the burglar is actually a wanted man, which will surely make Richard’s situation less problematic.
Richard tries to start the next day like any other day in his life, but it turns out to be not as easy as he thought. The news about what happened in his house has already been spread around the town, and everyone looks at him with awkward interest, and he is still trying to process what happened during last night. He and his wife clean up the mess in their living room and then get rid of blood-stained furnitures, but they do not look that relaxed even after everything is cleaned. They saw how fragile their normal domestic life can be, and they are now more aware of the possibility of another domestic disturbance.
And that possibility gets quickly increased when Richard learns about Ben Russel (Sam Shepard), the father of the dead man. Ben has just been paroled after long years of imprisonment, and it seems that he is very angry about what happened to the son he has yearned to meet for a long time. Richard encounters Ben by coincidence when he comes to see the burial of Ben’s son at a local cemetery, and, through his subtle menace, Ben makes no secret about his animosity toward the man who killed his son.
Their situation soon becomes something not so far from “Cape Fear” (1962) as it looks like Ben is slowly preparing for his personal revenge on Richard and his family, and it eventually culminates to a tense sequence unfolded in and around Richard’s house during one murky rainy night. With the calm but palpable suspense accentuated by Jeff Grace’s synthesizer-driven score which clearly emulates John Carpenter’s edgy scores for his thriller films, we come to feel as nervous as the characters on the screen because of what may happen in the end.
You may think I describe almost everything about the plot, but what I have described above so far is more or less the starting point for the journey into darkness for Richard and Ben, who unexpectedly become allies after Richard begins to sense that there is something very fishy about the whole situation. Along with private detective Jim Bob (Don Johnson), a longtime friend of Ben, they search for the answers for them, and that leads to the discovery which disturbs all of them for good reasons.
The director Jim Mickie previous made “Stake Land”(2010) and “We Are What We Are” (2013), and both of them were good horror films which showed his deftness in establishing mood and background. In case of “Cold in July”, he did a nice job again in a different territory as providing suitable ambience and period details for his noir drama. The cinematography by Ryan Samul frequently injects the sense of agitation to the screen in its unstable position, and you may be amused by a number of props reflecting the background of the movie (do you remember how big a mobile phone was during the 1980s?).
Mickie also drew engaging performances from his three talented main actors. Michael C. Hall, who is famous for recent TV series “Dexter”, is completely different from his serial killer character in that TV series as a normal guy deeply affected by his unintentional killing, and Sam Shepard gives an understated performance as a tough, taciturn ex-con full of personal guilt and anger. The most fun in the movie comes from Don Johnson; right from his colorful entrance scene, he has all the juicy fun he can have with his role, and then he slowly reveals intelligence and tactfulness inside his folksy character who turns out to be more clever and thoughtful than expected.
But, still, I hesitates to recommend “Cold in July” to you due to underdeveloped characterization and other flaws. I enjoyed its mood and plot to some degrees, but I felt unsatisfied because of the aforementioned plot holes remained untouched even in the end (one of them is particularly noticeable mainly because it is associated with the motive of a main character). Considering that lots of things can be permitted and tolerated in noir films, maybe you can be less bothered by these plot problems than me – and you may enjoy it more than me.