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If ‘True Detective’ Is a Steak Dinner, ‘Cold in July’ Is an Eight-Course Meal

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True Detective took a low key, brooding approach to piercing the masculine psyche. Cold in July serves a similar, but portioned meal.

There's nothing left to discover about the state of modern masculinity (acknowledge your less-essential role, 21st century gents!), but there are compelling ways to restate the reported observations.

Writer-director Jim Mickle's Cold in July is a scorching Tilt-A-Whirl ride through the male identity. Like the lovechild of Halloween and the last decade of South Korean detective thrillers, the film navigates the murky waters of conspiracy with composed elegance. Every frame of the film has a texture, a smell, and a temperature. Mickle lets a typically-kinetic home invasion sequence sizzle on the skillet. By the end, Cold in July barrel rolls into the well-treaded thematic soil. Mickle's stylistic storytelling makes getting there a reason to go.

Most movies are broken into three “acts” to pace the unraveling of an individual story. Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici, adapting a book by Joe R. Lansdale, decide to use each act to propel the lives of their characters into entirely new movies. We pick up with Richard (Dexter's Michael C. Hall) on a quiet East Texas night in 1989. From bed, he hears the sounds of what might be an intruder. He grabs his gun and tiptoes out into the living room to verify his suspicions. In a flash, Richard's standing over the bleeding body of the burglar. Word of the murder ripples through the town — an uncomfortable repercussion for Richard — and travels far enough to tip off the deceased criminal's outlaw father.

Russel (Sam Shepherd) wants violent revenge. Mickle sets up the pieces for him to take it; Richard grows into a paranoid protector, dim-witted police vow to protect him, and his house becomes a fortress readied for battle. When Jeff Grace's '80s synth score kicks in, capturing the spirit of John Carpenter's finest, we know how this'll play out. Man vs. man, Straw Dogs by way of the horror slasher film.

This is all the first 20 minutes of Cold in July. To entangle Richard in a web of moral imperatives, Mickle flips his movie on its head after Russel's one and only intrusion. The police track down and incarcerate the vengeful father — but something's off. Richard's curiosity reveals a nefarious plot against Russel. It's Richard who must save the elderly predator from becoming corruption's prey.

True Detective took a low key, brooding approach to piercing the masculine psyche. It waxed poetic as its two protagonists hit dead ends in their mystery-solving and in their personal lives. Cold in July serves a similar, but portioned meal. Flavors intensify when Mickle puts a gun in Richard's hands. When the family man uncovers everything bubbling under the surface of Russel and his son's history, Richard's instilled with the same vengeful manner he previously feared. It's a radical character shift, played with the utmost sincerity Hall, cultivated by Mickle's awareness for how harsh light, endless rain, and a trickle of blood can make a point pop.

Halfway through the film, Mickle adds a third character to the mix, Don Johnson's rootin' tootin' investigator Jim Bob. He wears a cowboy hat. He rides a Cadillac with the license plate “Red Bitch.” Mickle nukes Cold in July by dropping a Coen Bros-esque bomb on Hall and Shepherd. It works perfectly, swirling the tone and clashing male personalities that bleed into one another.  Speaking of blood, Cold of July gets there. True Detective was all about soaking up the aftermath. Cold in July lets shots fire.

After impressive turns in Stake Land and We Are What We Are, Mickel leap frogs his past work to bottle up a decade's worth of gender conversation and brute violence into one slick package. Instead of growing its own profound insight, Cold in July hands the actors audience knowledge — their own thoughts on masculinity — to chew up and spit out. The approach is blissfully vicious.

Cold in July is out now in theaters and video on demand.

Image via Sundance