This is going to sound like a backwards compliment, but my favorite thing about Jim Mickle's Cold in July is that it's not trying to be anything special. Somewhat similar to what we saw with Blue Ruin (though not quite as good), Cold in July simply wants to deliver a solid crime movie, something rare enough to be special in and of itself without the aid of gimmickry or experiments with form. It succeeds at this.
There is some gimmickry, though, thanks to the film's late-1980s setting, which allows the plot to exists thanks to limited technology but mostly seems implemented to give Michael C. Hall a funny mullet-mustache combination. It doesn't really come into play much beyond that.
Still, the story is where this film really shines. If you've seen the trailer, you probably think you know exactly how this film is going to go down: Michael C. Hall kills an intruder, the intruder's father just got out of prison, and Michael C. Hall must protect his family from this guy's vengeance. That's definitely what happens but only for the first half hour. What follows won't blow your mind with shocking surprises or anything, but it will keep you thoroughly entertained and interested in whatever unpredictable path it takes next.
Three great performances anchor the film, each offering different models of cinematic masculinity. Michael C. Hall's Richard Dane at first appears to be a mild mannered weakling looking to prove his mettle among a world of hardasses. That was my initial impression, anyway, and it was totally wrong. Richard looks like the kind of character who would take one of these narrative journeys, but he's actually a much more assured and refreshingly uncomplicated person. And while his involvement in the film's plot becomes increasingly difficult for the film to justify, it's nice to see a softer guy who's not necessarily smart or brave get his hands dirty out of an honest sense of justice rather than nagging insecurities.
Sam Shepard offers a nice iteration of the cold and stoic Clint Eastwood type. There's not a lot beneath the surface here, but it's great to see Shepard get into a real sizable role like this instead of just show up for a near cameo as he often does lately.
But the film really belongs to Don Johnson as Joe Bob (of course that's his fucking name), a private investigator pal. Johnson pretty much goes with the same sleazy/charming aged Texan guy he's been playing since people started liking him again. The difference here is that Joe Bob gives him a chance to apply this to a deserving character with full human dimension, and it's a real joy to watch. The movie would be good without Johnson but any time he's on screen it's great. He's on screen a lot.
Cold in July also benefits from one of the best film scores I've heard in a while. Composer Jeff Grace's John Carpenter-influenced synth score manages to aid tension well enough to completely bypass any hints of camp or reliance on nostalgia for kicks. It's a perfect score for this film because it serves a primary cinematic function while also imbuing it with a definitive character and tone it might not have otherwise.
Though I seem to be in the minority, I found very little to like about Jim Mickle's We Are What We Are. With Cold in July, however, I'm beginning to see what others admired so much. It's a little movie but a very assured one, the kind you always hope to discover while browsing VOD titles. I especially doubt any crime fiction fans will regret giving it a chance.