With recent movies like Killer Joe, Mud and Ain't Them Bodies Saints, it seems we have arrived quietly at a golden age for Southern Gothic cinema. Cold in July probably ranks below those exceptional films, but that doesn't stop this sinister thriller from wearing its black heart on its blood-soaked sleeve. Based on Joe R. Lansdale's crime novel and set in late-1980s East Texas (the recent Southern Gothics have successfully annexed Texas, thankfully preventing the rise of Southwestern Gothic), Cold in July's twists and turns ultimately arrive at a place completely unimaginable based on the events of the film's first 30 minutes. Some very hokey dialogue undermines a few scenes, but not enough to break the spell. It's amazing how effective a little unpredictability can be.
Co-writer and director Jim Mickle previously has made indie horror movies including Mulberry Street and Stake Land, and there are early signs that Cold in July may go down that road. But Mickle intentionally mixes up genres, from detective fiction to buddy movies. Sharing in the mischief is Michael C. Hall (TV's Dexter) as a mild-mannered businessman with a mullet who sets things in motion by accidentally shooting an intruder in his home. But the movie really belongs to two aging stars ready to bare their souls on screen: Sam Shepard and none other than Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame. As flamboyant private detective Jim Bob Luke, Johnson rolls into the movie driving a 1970s Dakota-red Cadillac Eldorado convertible and proceeds to chew whatever scenery is at hand. Nothing succeeds quite like success.