Friday, May 23, 2014

Playing in a Bigger Sandbox: Cold In July


It’s one thing to make a film that plays within the sandbox of a certain genre; it is quite another to play with the idea of genre itself. With his fourth film, Cold in July (opening today), Jim Mickle has climbed out of the horror genre sandbox and moved towards a more restless investigation of genre itself. His first three films form a trilogy, each part of which sits squarely within the micro-genre of vampire, cannibal, or post-apocalyptic zombie, respectively. This is not to say that they are not playful or interesting, only that each one inhabits a specific genre.  

Last year’s We Are What We Are, in particular, was a beautiful and restrained entry into the Stephen King style of religious-hysteria-gone-horrific thriller, and also contained a whiff of historically treated cannibalism that might remind one of Ravenous (1999)--or the Donner Party. The new wrinkle presented by Cold in July is that it doesn’t content itself with one genre or another. It moves effortlessly between modes, and in retrospect can feel like three distinct chapters in this certain part of the protagonist’s life. These distinct and discrete parts, though, always maintain the momentum from scene-to-scene and feel absolutely connected and part of the same story.  

Once again collaborating on the screenplay with his key actor, Nick Damici (who once again plays a potentially shady sheriff, but a different one than in We Are What We Are), Cold in July finds Mickle for the first time adapting a work from another medium. The novel is by Joe R. Lansdale, perhaps best known to genre film fans as the writer on whose work Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) was based. Mickle and Damici make the crucial and brilliant choice of not updating the novel’s setting, contemporary to its release, of 1989--instead they use it as a period. A twist that propels the story into its third act is contingent upon 80s era tech, but the period choice provides more than just that narrative device or the mullet-and-huge-mobile-phones jokes. It provides the broader genre sandbox that Mickle is playing in with Cold in July: the 80s thriller, specifically the type you would have found late night on HBO (or direct-to-video). 

Right from the opening title, we’re given a clue to the game we’re playing, as it’s written in the font and color styles of an 80s thriller. The reference is unmistakable, but not as on-the-nose as, say, the hot pink cursive used by Nicolas Winding Refn for Drive (2011). We’re in the realm of Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse (2007)--authentic exploitation recreation, with a wink--rather than Rodriguez’s more parodic take in his own half of Grindhouse. The score functions the same way, referencing John Carpenter’s synth work for the original Halloween (1978)--and the myriad of 80s film scores it influenced--while remaining its own thing. The point is proven when, at a climactic point near the end of the film, the synth disappears and is replaced by an acoustic piano. It’s the same acoustic piano sound from the same composer (Jeff Grace) that you’ll find in Mickle’s other films. This sort of personal transformation of a filmic reference is used in an even more straightforward manner when Mickle telegraphs a plot point by showing the characters watching a scene from Night of the Living Dead (1968) with the seemingly random line of dialogue, “Persons who are really deceased have been coming back to life.” 

In the first third of the film, Mickle plays up the horror elements. At that point, Cold in July is essentially a monster movie, with Sam Shepard playing the monster. The shot of a dark, seemingly empty room wherein a lightning strike suddenly reveals a hulking monster filling up its space is a standard horror movie trick. Other moments throughout this early portion of the film bring to mind Max Cady creepily watching Sam Bowden and his family, intimidating them through his mere presence, in Cape Fear (1962 or 1991, take your pick). But then, wonderfully, all of this suspenseful moodiness is allowed to dissipate, and we’re given the opportunity to relax and have some fun with the arrival of Don Johnson, playing a beloved recurring character of Lansdale’s called Jim Bob Luke.

Johnson/Jim Bob is given a hell of an entrance, and the tone palpably changes as soon as his red Cadillac pulls into the frame. A certain comedic jocularity overcomes the proceedings, and even some violence is played for laughs. Cold in July becomes the buddy movie Elmore Leonard would’ve written if he was from Texas. But then the introduction of that most 80s of technological relics--a videotape--syncs up the motivation of the ostensible protagonist, played by Michael C. Hall, with those of the other two principals, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson, and the film moves towards an inevitable showdown. Things turn dark again, but without the horror film trappings of earlier on. Now we’re in a low-budget shoot-em-up, but one where the emotional stakes are very real, especially for the Sam Shepard character, who is given a roundedness that utterly belies the monster he had been portraying earlier on.

Cold in July has a playful complexity that reveals itself more in retrospect than it does in the moment, when you’re too busy enjoying the constituent parts to start examining how intricate the scaffolding is that holds it all together. Maybe the same can also be said for Jim Mickle’s growing filmography.  

No comments: