With last year's We Are What We Are, director Jim Mickle produced a near-miracle – a remake of a recent classic that was not only acclaimed, but did something genuinely innovative with its source material. Finally arriving on screens after several years in the making, his fourth feature Cold in July is a gripping and stylish western noir that blends the small-town malevolence of David Cronenberg's A History of Violence with a sinewy B-movie efficiency that recalls other recent potboiler adaptations like The Lincoln Lawyer.
Michael C Hall is Richard Dane, a meek everyman whose life begins to come apart after he accidentally shoots dead an intruder in his home. "My finger slipped," he says blankly, too shell-shocked to accept any of the hero credit his local community is eager to bestow. There's no question of his being charged with anything – the local cops are, if anything, grateful that he's taken a wanted felon off their hands.
Their nonchalance in contrast to Richard's guilt-ridden shock has compelling implications about gun laws in the US – mistake or otherwise, shooting an unarmed intruder is a crime that can go unpunished – but politics fall rapidly by the wayside as a seemingly straightforward premise snowballs into a lean, twisty noir. After the father of the man killed (Sam Shepard on arrestingly sinister form) comes to town to make some barely-veiled threats, Richard realises that he's a pawn in a much larger and more grisly game.
In the hands of Mickle and his regular writing partner Nick Damici, Cold in July unfolds with lean precision that leaves little room for preamble or character expansion. Richard's relationships with his wife (Vinessa Shaw) and son (Brogan Hall) are thinly drawn and lack intimacy, but Hall nevertheless convinces as a man who will stop at nothing to protect his family.
Packing a convincing Southern drawl and a quiet core of steel, Hall gives an internalized central performance that's closer to Six Feet Under's repressed David than his better-known stint as Showtime's loveable (and increasingly ludicrous) serial killer Dexter. Alongside Shepard's strong supporting work there's Don Johnson, who makes one hell of a late entrance as a shirted and booted PI by the name of Jim Bob Luke.
Mickle makes the most of the film's slightly period 1989 milieu, which lends an edge of stylish nostalgia – one key set piece unfolds in a video rental store, underlined by Jeff Grace's synthy, steel drum score. But the outstanding final shootout is modern action cinema at its best, a visceral and sharply edited hail of bullets.
Dark and lean and often silent, Cold in July is a handsome if slight slice of pure genre filmmaking, its pulpy thrills made memorable by a potent trio of performers and Mickle's firm sense of style.