It’s a family nightmare: You wake up and realize you’re not alone in the house. For Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall), it’s compounded when he accidentally shoots the intruder, then has to contend with the repercussions—both his own guilt and the sudden threat of the dead man’s father, who begins to stalk the Danes.
But for Cold in July, that’s just the beginning. Soon, Richard’s misgivings lead him to find out more about the terrifying Ben Russell—played by Sam Shepard, who presented similarly still waters in Out of the Furnace, and must be punching a Modern Revenge Noir time card once a year these days—and what the police might be keeping from Richard about the crime he never meant to commit.
The shift from family noir to revenge drama isn’t entirely a smooth one. Some early setups vanish into the Texas night, and once the double-crosses begin to stack up, the tightly constructed family terror of the first third gets a bit drowned out by the stereotypical, unspoken concerns surrounding fathers and sons. Richard’s wife, played by Vinessa Shaw, has a promising start but does little more than buy a flowered sofa. Still, this film’s bolstered by its cast, with Hall bringing a particular gravity, and a savvy director—Jim Mickle, who knows how to let dread build up in a quiet shot. And even amid the tangled web, careful details carry things smoothly forward, and the terseness of the characters is balanced carefully with visual detail: the domestic clean-up of crime-scene blood and the filthy footprints left by the police, horrible secrets concealed in innocuous storefronts, a horse made from drinking straws.
Together, they make Cold in July an absorbing take on the modern family noir, a movie that knows the devil’s in the details.