Would-be master of horror Jim Mickle has a distinctly old-school gift for intimating doom that can feel like a fetish. In Cold in July’s best scene, Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall), still reeling from the trauma of having killed an intruder in his East Texas home, rides to the local cemetery to pay his respects. Sweaty and near-choking on his grief, he watches the dead man’s father, Ben (Sam Shepard), materialize outside his car window as if a product of heat stroke. One veiled threat leads to another, and what follows between these two fathers is a taut mini-war driven by eye-for-an-eye retribution. Ben’s appearance inside Richard’s home, cued by thunder that may as well have been made using a thunder sheet, would be comical if it wasn’t for Mickle’s unerring camera placement and the accumulation of unpretentiously imagined textual details. By the time the cops arrive, Shepard’s codger disappears into the ether, leaving Richard and his family shaken and audiences convinced that the old man may share DNA with Michael Myers.
The story, set in 1983, essentially imagines Assault on Precinct 13 inside a suburban home, fixating on Richard’s community of mom-jean-wearing friends and neighbors easing his regret following the home invasion. When a townie says, “Sometimes the good guy wins,” Richard doesn’t quite believe it, and it’s that doubt that pushes him subtly toward the edge of vigilante justice. The filmmakers, without condescension toward this milieu’s never-exploding local color, specialize in making the banal, the routine, the stomach-churningly necessary hum with a palpable sense of disquiet—as in a scene wherein Richard and his wife, Ann (Vinessa Shaw), scrub the knickknacks inside their living room of all brain matter, then dump bloody bucket water into their toilet. This tension is summoned through a brazen but effective approximation of John Carpenter’s signature style, from Mickle’s static camera to the ever-bubbling synth squelches of Jeff Grace’s score, and it’s as a modest character study that flirts with suspense, about Richard’s unflagging drive to get Ben off his lawn, that Cold in July feels most compulsively watchable.
The film, though, switches almost on a dime and falls into a rabbit hole of tiresome plot machinations involving a police cover-up, the Dixie mafia, and a snuff-film ring, all leading toward the flattest of emotional crescendos. While Mickle’s compositions lose much of their verve in the film’s later half, his regard for the analog does not—and at the expense of perspective into his characters’ emotional torque. By Cold in July’s end, we’ve gotten a stronger handle on Ben’s inability to work a VHS machine than we do on whatever feelings of regret inform his journey to find the son he never really knew. Richard, now along for the ride in someone else’s journey toward redemption, shoots a thug in the head, and the blood splatter on an overhead light spectacularly bathes a room in deep-red light. It’s a cool effect, but like the self-flattering nods Mickle makes to his influences throughout, such as a meeting outside a drive-in screening of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, it’s one that struggles for meaning.