Cold in July

Reviewing “Cold in July” is tricky because so much of its appeal stems from its surprises — not “surprises” in the sense of shocking plot twists, but in the way the story keeps us guessing about what kind of story it is. Is it a grim drama about the real-life consequences of violence? A revenge thriller in which an ordinary man is drawn into a dangerous world? A buddy comedy? Sure! All of those!

In lesser hands, such an erratic storyline might have resulted in a frustrating, disappointing film of inconsistent tone. But “Cold in July,” based on Joe R. Lansdale’s novel and directed by Jim Mickle (“We Are What We Are”), is a highly satisfying bit of pulp fiction that uses its ever-changing trajectory to its advantage.

Set in east Texas in 1989, the film starts with a burglar being shot by a homeowner, Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall), a timid man who’d never fired a gun before and is rattled by the act of violence, however justified it was. Richard’s disinterest in gun culture makes him an outlier in his rural community, where his redneck mailman congratulates him the next day with “I hear you got ya one last night.” To the police and the townsfolk, it’s no big deal. But they aren’t the ones who, like Richard and his wife (Vinessa Shaw), have to scrub brains off the living room wall, or who are now unsettled by the sight of their little boy playing with a toy gun.

The mood at this point is reminiscent of “A History of Violence,” David Cronenberg’s excellent drama about a small-town family forced to reckon with the traumatic things that, in movies, seem to have no effect on people. Things get more complicated — and start to move in another direction — when Richard learns that his burglar’s father is a recently paroled felon himself. This man, Ben Russell (Sam Shepard), all steely-eyed and gravel-voiced, is none too pleased about what happened to his son, and he starts menacing Richard, “Cape Fear”-style. Where Richard was once apologetic (he told the cops, “My finger slipped”), now he’s forced to be defensive, telling Ben, “He didn’t give me much choice.”

We now seem to have arrived at a new type of story, one in which an average citizen must defend himself against a dangerous criminal because the police don’t believe him about the guy being a threat. Fortunately, we’re in this mode only a short time before Ben Russell’s harassment becomes incontrovertible — and then, yet again, we pivot to something new. This involves, at the movie’s halfway mark, the introduction of a brand-new character, a glib, pugnacious P.I. named Jim Bob, who is played with obvious glee by Don Johnson. Johnson, Hall, and Shepard — not a trio of actors I’d have pictured together, but a very effective ensemble as it turns out — carry the film into its crime-noir section, where the story gets darker even as the dialogue grows lighter and funnier.

Mickle has said “Cold in July” was partly influenced by the 1980s work of John Carpenter, which is evident in his use of Carpenter’s signature font (Albertus) in the credits, and in commissioning a musical score (by Jeff Grace) full of thrumming synthesizers. I don’t see much resemblance beyond that except maybe to “Big Trouble in Little China” (ordinary guy dragged into underworld), but Mickle’s interest in genre conventions is worth noting, especially as “Cold in July” is so different from his previous films, which have mostly been horror variations.

There’s horror in “Cold in July,” but it’s more muted and internal, more about human nature than about, say, cannibalism or vampires. Mickle’s direction is tense and confident, sure-footedly guiding us along the treacherous and entertaining path mapped out for these disparate characters, stumbling only slightly in the too-tidy resolution. Still, it’s amazing to see where a story can go when it starts with one bullet.

B+ (1 hr., 49 min.; R, some harsh profanity, a few moments of graphic violence, some disturbing content.)

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