** (out of four)
I feel more strongly about the title “Cold in July,” which better not be an accurate forecast, than I do about the movie. That’s partly because it’s been only four weeks since “Blue Ruin” invigorated a familiar story about vigilante justice and families intertwined by violence. (See it.) Now “Cold” attempts to do the same, with milder results.
Playing someone who kills by accident this time around, Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”) stars as Richard, who wakes to hear a stirring in the house. He goes to investigate. He sees the outline of an intruder. His finger slips, and he takes a literal shot in the dark. The cops don’t care; they say the dead thief is a wanted felon, and Richard is just an upstanding citizen who can claim self-defense. Still, this frame-store owner and husband (Vinessa Shaw plays his wife) feels guilty and, more tangibly, scared when his victim’s father (Sam Shepard), fresh out of prison, turns up looking to punish his boy’s killer.
Because this is a movie, the action occurs in a slow, methodical pattern of intimidation—allowing for new information to come to light and the story to turn toward a thin tale of police corruption and extensive cruelty. Also included are a tough supporting turn from Don Johnson and a creepy appearance by Wyatt Russell, whom you may remember as the hockey player hitting on Leslie Mann’s character in “This is 40.”
“We Are What We Are,” director/co-writer Jim Mickle’s last collaboration with co-writer Nick Damici, used tone and unsettling imagery to let a family’s shocking tradition crawl down brave viewers’ necks. Set in 1989 Texas (thus excusing the inclusion of a video store), the temporarily suspenseful “Cold in July” is more bound to everyday reality. The filmmakers struggle to elevate the piece from ‘70s drive-in pulp to distinct, thematically rich art. The story of personal responsibility also ends on a moment that’s a less-powerful version of the recent “Cheap Thrills.”
One image does linger from the otherwise generic film: It involves a man preparing to hit a woman in the head with a baseball bat, an unintentionally disturbing reminder that horrifying behavior doesn't only happen onscreen.
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