Movie review

Plot shoots holes in lukewarm thriller 'Cold in July'

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If Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) lived in a city in present-day America, he might grab his smartphone, lock his family in a room in their home and call 911 to report a suspected burglary.

But, in 1989 East Texas when his wife (Vinessa Shaw) hears the sound of breaking glass and a door opening with an ominous squeak, Richard heads for their bedroom closet and a box with a gun and bullets, which he loads with quivering hands.

'Cold in July'

Starring: Michael C Hall, Vinessa Shaw, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson..

Rating: R in nature for violence, language, sexual content.

After checking on his sleeping son, he creeps toward the living room and is hit with a burst of illumination from a flashlight. Richard responds, wordlessly, with a shot that kills the intruder -- surprising himself as much as the victim in "Cold in July."

Richard operates a framing shop and admits to the sheriff that his trigger finger slipped. "Look, he's a wanted felon, you're an upstanding citizen without a record. Sometimes, the good guy wins," the lawman assures him.

But hats are rarely so white and black, and that holds true in this case as Richard's numbness gives way to dread and anxiety when ex-con Ben Russell (Sam Shepard), identified as the father of the dead man, shows up oozing menace and threats.

"That was a nice picture of your family in the paper. Your boy looks a whole lot like you," he says, setting off alarm bells for Richard and the audience. Is he really threatening an eye for an eye or, in this case, a son for a son?

The story, though, hurtles off the main road in literal and figurative fashion, and the twists grow more difficult to swallow during its 109-minute runtime.

At almost exactly the hour mark, after the entrance of another outsider played with colorful, youthful vigor by Don Johnson, Richard makes one too many preposterous decisions.

And even when the movie seems to allow him to come to his senses, it then ricochets him back into even seedier, corrupt, crime-crazy territory. By the time everyone is wielding guns two at a time, you may be muttering, "Oh, come on."

This is not the Michael C. Hall of "Dexter," but a guy with a mullet and not-very-manly mustache that reinforce the sentiment of his mailman. "I hear you got you one last night," the carrier says. "Didn't think you had it in you."

But who knows what is really inside someone, especially once the dragon has been disturbed?

The source novel by Joe R. Lansdale opens with a preface recalling his inspiration -- a Texas house for sale with an unexplained bullet hole in the ceiling -- and a quote from Nietzsche. "Whoever fights monsters, should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster."

Candidates for monster are many here, and they come in surprising places and family trees in the movie co-written by director Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, who also plays the lead lawman in this hardboiled crime story.

However, in the end, the Everyman with blood on his hands -- visible, invisible and for reasons righteous and revengeful -- is forced to make a leap as big as Texas itself.

Opens at the Harris Theater, Downtown, on Friday.

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