Brain Matter on the Couch

If there's any justice in this cruel world, Cold in July will make its director, Jim Mickle, a star

Who knew Sam Shepard could be so damn scary? And who is this Jim Mickle fellow?

As a deranged father recently released from prison and seeking revenge, Shepard is just one of the many reasons to see Cold in July, a first rate Texas thriller from director Jim Mickle that stands as one of the better films of 2014 thus far.

As frame storeowner and nervous family man Richard Dane, Michael C. Hall delivers his best movie performance yet. The film isn't more than 8 minutes into its running time when we are greeted by the sight of Richard and wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) cleaning blood and brain matter off the family couch and pictures, the result of a confrontation with a late night intruder.

Enter Shepard as Russel, a man none too pleased with Richard, for Russel knew the man that brain matter belonged to.

Sure, this could just be a movie where Russel terrorizes the Dane family, and I'm thinking that could've been a pretty good movie at that. As it turns out, Mickle and screenwriter Nick Damici, basing their work on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, have something far more complex, twisted and even a bit funny in mind. As directorial jobs go, Mickle has delivered a real winner, a film that isn't afraid to shift tones dramatically, and a film that handles those different tones with a master's efficiency.

When the movie feels like it can't get much darker, in rolls Don Johnson as Jim Bob (Love that name!), a private investigator out to help an old friend. Johnson injects the story with some solid comic relief. He doesn't show up until half the film is already over, but he figures prominently in the proceedings from that point on.

After Johnson's glorious first appearance in the film, it becomes a road movie. To tell you who exactly goes on that road trip would be to give far too much away. Heck, I feel like I've revealed too much already.

The movie is set in 1989, with Hall's mullet and wood paneled station wagon completely betraying that fact. At one point I detected that the soundtrack by Jeff Grace had a very distinct hint of composer/director John Carpenter, specifically something akin to his theme from Halloween.

Mickle's prior films have been acclaimed horror flicks (We Are What We Are and Stake Land), and he is a big Carpenter fan. While Cold in July isn't a horror film, some of it does have that '80s Carpenter vibe.

Johnson has been tearing it up lately. His turn as Big Daddy in Django Unchained was the highlight of that film, and he killed me as Danny McBride's dad on the great HBO comedy Eastbound & Down. He was even funny in this year's shitty Cameron Diaz comedy, The Other Woman. Jim Bob transforms the movie from something great to something near classic when he strolls into Dane's little frame shop.

Even more impressive would be Shepard's film appearances these last couple of years. Killing Them Softly, Mud, Out of the Furnace, and a short but haunting appearance in August: Osage County reveal that the man with the golden typewriter has a whole lot of powerhouse acting left in him. His work her as the unhinged and tragic Russel might just be his best acting, ever. I'm serious with that quote. He is messed up in this movie, and it's bound to be a performance for which he is remembered. Cold in July is one of those "come out of nowhere" thrillers, like Carl Franklin's awesome One False Move (1992) and, I'll say it, Joel and Ethan Coen's debut, Blood Simple (1984). Yes, I just mentioned Cold in July in the same paragraph as Blood Simple. Blood Simple got the Coens on the map. If there's any justice in the cinema world, Cold in July will do the same for Jim Mickle.

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