“Unpredictable” is one of the highest compliments one can pay a movie, especially an American thriller. With screenwriting gurus transforming the craft into a reusable blueprint, is there a rarer cinematic pleasure than wondering where the hell a film could possibly be going? For a good chunk of its running time, Jim Mickle’s new noir whatsit Cold In July provokes such curiosity. Hell, even identifying what specific kind of thriller it is requires constant re-evaluation. Set in 1989 Texas, the film begins with a literal bang, as mild-mannered family man Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) accidentally blows away a masked teenager who’s broken into his home. The incident makes our poor, guilt-stricken hero the talk of the town, and soon he’s running afoul of the dead boy’s ex-convict father (Sam Shepard), fresh out the pen and looking to settle a score. So far, so familiar.
Yet, just when audiences will presumably be settling into the groove of this ordinary-man-in-over-his-head story, the film makes a hard sideways swerve. Suddenly, what started as a riff on A History Of Violence begins to look more like Cape Fear—and from there, the twists in tone and narrative agenda only get wilder. The genre alchemy comes from the source material, a novel by cult author Joe R. Lansdale, whose previous accomplishments include pitting an elderly Elvis against a blood-sucking mummy. But it’s Mickle, hot off last year’s elegant horror remake We Are What We Are, who manages the gear shifts here. There’s a very 1980s vibe to the middle passage, especially once the director cranks up Jeff Grace’s mood music, which sounds like some lost Tangerine Dream score. Just don’t get too attached to that mode, as it isn’t long before Mickle switches it up again.
As entertaining as it is to watch Cold In July drift, the film has to eventually pick a lane—and that’s where this otherwise accomplished suspense picture runs into the ditch. Without saying much more, it’s a weird path to forge, from the thorny moral inquiries of act one to the pandering genre thrills of act three. The upshot isn’t just genuinely dumb, it’s a bit tasteless, as though either Lansdale or Mickle let some irresponsible 14-year-old dream up a “badass” ending. Enjoying a long, strange trip doesn’t always mean appreciating the destination.