It starts as one good thing, then takes a hard turn and becomes a totally different, even better thing.
Last week, America lost one of its great writers and actors when Sam Shepard died at the age of 73. Shepard had a vastly influential and long career, having started writing plays in the 1960s and acting in the 1970s. Shepard was one of those rare talents who truly excels in multiple fields. He was a Pulitzer-winning playwright, an acclaimed screenplay writer, and a celebrated and Academy Award-nominated actor. If you have a Netflix subscription, you can stream one of the best movies of the latter part of Shepard’s career: Cold in July.
2014’s Cold in July is a fantastic dark thriller, with heavy emphasis on the dark. The script was not written by Shepard, but it shares many of his characteristic themes, such as darkness and dysfunction in American families and the American West as a setting. Adapted from Joe R. Lansdale’s novel of the same name, Cold in July opens with Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall with a mullet!) killing a robber in the dead of night. The body is identified by the police as Freddy Russell, the son of just-released convict Ben Russell (Sam Shepard). Dane is already shaken up by the experience, and then Shepard’s character starts stalking him and threatening his family.
At this point, Cold in July could have easily been a straightforward thriller about a criminal seeking revenge on an innocent man’s family, but the film smartly does a 90-degree turn. Dane starts to realize some of the details don’t add up. When he sees the police drug Shepard’s character and leave him to die on the train tracks, Dane rescues him and convinces him that the robber he killed wasn’t actually Ben Russell’s son. Russell brings in a private investigator—Don Johnson, doing excellent work—and soon they uncover the brutal truth of what actually happened to Freddy Russell. I won’t spoil the twists, but instead of Sam Shepard’s character avenging his son the film ends with him going to kill his own son. “You know, when a dog bites you, you can either chain him up or put him down,” Shepard says before making that fatal decision.
Cold in July is a moody Texan noir, although both Hall and Johnson bring lightness to their roles. Michael C. Hall apparently took the role after playing the titular serial killer on Dexter to get to play “a normal person who was very troubled and horrified by that fact that he—without even intending to—killed somebody.” The movie is filled with evocative details that are often left out of murder mysteries, such as the time Hall’s character spends scrubbing out blood and replacing furniture after the shooting. Shepard’s acting here is typically understated and moving. Sam Shepard also worked a little on the script, which was co-written and directed by Jim Mickle, fixing one of the scenes that Mickle was stuck on. Whether you’re a lifelong Shepard fan or just in the mood for a memorable crime drama, Cold in July is well worth a watch.
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