Film noir has ascended from its murky origins in the dark past back in the 1940's to high cinema fashion in our time, when any crime story of any kind earns the trendy term. Detective films, gangster movies, horror flicks, everything but romantic comedies, no matter their style or content, huddle under the great critical umbrella of noir. The term is so common that in fiction it separates into French noir (of course), Norwegian noir, Swedish noir, Irish noir, and so on ad infinitum.
"Cold in July" represents yet another version of the form, which it may actually deserve: Texas noir, a film inspired by Cormac McCarthy's dark vision. It resembles "No Country for Old Men," "The Counselor," even "Killer Joe" in its location, its people, its violence, its pervasive sense of criminality, its bleak view of life. Because of its geographical location, like others in the group it also retains a strong connection to the Western.
The movie begins with a single act of violence, then proceeds ineluctably down a strange twisting path of tension and fear, finally ending in a bloodbath. Like many classic thrillers, it places its protagonist, almost by mere chance, in a dark, scary mystery that ultimately instructs him in the ways of a world he'd never known before, lifting the cover off life to give him a look inside at the real workings of the universe.
Set in East Texas in 1989, the movie opens with Ann Dane (Vinessa Shaw) waking her husband Richard (Michael C. Hall) to tell him she hears a noise. He shakily loads a revolver and creeps downstairs to find an intruder with a large flashlight examining his living room. He challenges the man, who turns around, shining that bright light in his eyes, which somehow forces the frightened Richard to shoot him.
From that moment Richard's life changes dramatically; shaken and sickened by his act, he rejects the congratulations of acquaintances, who cannot understand his feelings of guilt and sorrow. The detective lieutenant, Ray Price (Nick Damici), reassures him that the dead man was a known felon with a long record, which provides him little comfort. He encounters the man's father, Russel (Sam Shepard), also a felon, who utters veiled threats about Richard's own little boy, plunging him into a panic.
Just when the plot appears to settle into a familiar thriller pattern, with the innocent protagonist fighting off the attacks of a vengeful criminal, it shifts into another gear, suggesting that a more complicated scheme lies beneath the primary situation. Richard discovers that the police follow a different agenda and that Russel amounts to more than he seems. When an old friend of Russel's, a flamboyant cowboy private eye named (what else) Jim Bob (Don Johnson) enters the movie in a red Cadillac, the three men embark on a quest to find the truth about the burglar, the police, and what appears to be an official cover-up of a more serious crime; in the process they unearth evidence about the Dixie Mafia, snuff films, and a painful truth about Russel and his son.
As the plot grows darker and more complicated and the emotions move in unexpected directions, Richard changes in ways he never expected, committed to a new kind of vengeance for reasons far beyond his initial decision. In a sense he grows up, but because "Cold in July" shares common ground with both the thriller and the Western, his maturation occurs through violence, reflecting the manhood ritual that defines the trajectory of the Western.
The three major actors create a strange trio of characters. A generally passive actor, Michael C. Hall reflects the transformations in his character mostly through silences and facial expressions, a difficult task for an actor without a great deal of presence. Lean, leathery, and laconic, the grizzled Sam Shepard looks rather like Clint Eastwood's (slightly) younger brother, expressing some devastating emotional stress with grim understatement. Don Johnson, who's not been around much lately, is simply terrific as Jim Bob, a vital, colorful contrast to the two morose men around him; he also appears to be enjoying the hell out of the movie and his part; he makes this tough, brutal little thriller more than worthwhile.