One of the few positive developments in recent US film has been the indie sector's rediscovery of a pulpy, R-rated kind of thriller all but abandoned by the major studios in their pursuit of superhero megabucks: a rattling 100 minutes or so that would have gone over like gangbusters had it emerged on VHS back in the day, but now appears doubly exotic for appearing on a cinema screen long after the grown-ups have packed up and moved on to premium cable television. Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin was one such title, Adam Wingard's You're Next and The Guest two more. Cold in July, from the team behind 2010's superior vampire pic Stake Land, takes a particular care to preserve intact pulp's wayward instincts: it demonstrates a likably subversive edge in interrogating America's enduring gun fetish, while eventually winding up somewhere closer to Death Wish. You can't say it isn't a hell of a ride, even if there are points where cautious-minded viewers might want to get off.
Jim Mickle's film, adapted from the Joe R. Lansdale novel, begins in East Texas in 1989 - the precision is noted and appreciated - where Michael C. Hall's bemulleted everyman Dane is about to find his life altered overnight after accidentally shooting dead a kid who breaks into his family's home. The police - in the form of the amenable local lieutenant (co-writer Nick Damici) - advise our hero to plead self-defence, seeking to reassure everybody in the wider community that the victim got more or less what he deserved. This doesn't, however, prevent Dane from succumbing to sleepless nights, and a mounting desire to turn his house into Fort Knox - what might seem an understandable over-reaction, were it not for the fact that his victim's ne'er-do-well pop Sam Shepard has been seen lurking nearby, muttering dark words on the theme of an eye for an eye. That, lest we forget, was the title of a 1996 potboiler starring Sally Field and Donald Sutherland, and the Mickle-Damici pairing are clearly keen to reclaim, repackage and reinvigorate that which has gone before in this field.
There's an element or two of the 1990s home-invasion cycle in here, unmistakably: characters hiding in crawlspaces, a fairly negligible role for Vinessa Shaw as Hall's missus, for this remains a subgenre chiefly concerned with the things a man's gotta do. Yet with a notable economy and virtuosity, this first plot movement gets resolved within a half-hour, leaving Dane to pursue what amounts to a nagging doubt for the remainder of the running time; what should be an open-and-shut case instead gives way to a Texan free-for-all, involving Don Johnson as a larger-than-life PI known as Jim Bob and representatives of the so-called Dixie Mafia. In this respect, Cold in July may have more in common with the second season of TV's Fargo, another shifting, multi-character piece of the kind the studios now shy away from. The risk - and it's one the studios are all too aware of - is that you lose viewers while warping from one film into another; certainly Cold in July, toggling between the James Ellroy and Carl Hiaasen schools of crime fiction, becomes a jokier proposition in its second hour, and it feels both a strength and a liability that we cannot ever pin it down.
Nevertheless, it emerges as yet another effective calling card for the flexible Mickle to demonstrate he can do pretty much anything, handed the opportunity and the appropriate resources. Before Lansdale's narrative succumbs to the trashy business of snuff tapes and luridly lit rooms, he shows a real knack for drawing us into his hero's troubled headspace, having Dane zone out with delayed panic at a level crossing or while watching a couple's most public PDA aboard a Greyhound bus; with Damici's assistance, he also very deftly inserts an extra question mark here and there as to just how these grown men's behaviour has come to impact upon their offspring. As in Stake Land, the filmmakers appear entirely assured in building a close-knit ensemble of actors who work consistently well together as their characters find out new and surprising facts about one another: Hall, who did such tremendous, filigreed work on TV in Six Feet Under and Dexter that he absolutely deserves a big-screen showcase, is very good at conveying Dane's restlessness, his inability to find peace once his cage has been decisively rattled. Whether mainstream movies can accommodate his subtle gifts at the moment is another matter entirely.