The Best Movie You Never Saw: Cold In July

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at COLD IN JULY!


Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) accidentally kills a home invader, and must now contend with the dead man’s father (Sam Shepard), who’s eager for payback. But, is the dead man actually who the cops say he is?

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, & Don Johnson. Written by Nick Damici & Jim Mickle, based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale. Music by Jeff Grace. Directed by Jim Mickle.

THE HISTORY: I first saw COLD IN JULY back at Sundance in 2014. I was lucky enough to attend the premiere, and funny enough, I was seated directly in front of the great Don Johnson. And I mean DIRECTLY, in that I could feel his knees against the back of my seat the entire film (the Library theater rows are tight). Just as crazy, Sam Shepard was directly in front of me. HE could probably feel MY knees against HIS seat the whole film. Before the flick started Johnson and Shepard were chatting over me, and none other than Kurt Russell (there supporting his son Wyatt Russell) came over to say hi to them. Then Goldie Hawn came and told Kurt they had to take their seats. I was literally in the crossfires of cool. Trying to not come across as a nerd, I kept my head down and didn’t make my presence known. Truth be told I was shitting bricks. They probably would have been nice enough though, as years later I interviewed Johnson and he was a great guy.

“When you’ve been doing this for as long as I have, you kind of get a sense for directors that have film sense and those that don’t… and sometimes you’re right, and sometimes you’re wrong. [Laughs.] But I was pretty dead on with Jim Mickle. He’s gifted. I usually don’t even watch my movies, but I’ve seen this one a couple of times!” – Don Johnson – AV Club Random Roles Interview 

But back to the movie. COLD IN JULY got some pretty great reviews out of Sundance and got picked up by IFC Films, who opened it theatrically to not great box office. I imagine ancillary sales have been brisk though, and it was enough of a hit that Sundance greenlit a series from Mickle, “Hap & Leonard”, that further explores the Joe R. Lansdale universe, and just started its third season. However, the film itself is, in my opinion, totally underappreciated, and deserves to be held up as one of the better genre films of the decade.

WHY IT’S GREAT: I loved COLD IN JULY when I saw it at Sundance, but often it’s very easy to get caught-up in the festival atmosphere and overpraise a film. I watch so many movies for JoBlo (and on my own) that I rarely revisit anything unless I have a compelling reason, and before watching it again this weekend, I hadn’t seen it since the Sundance premiere. Happily, the film holds up extremely well, and I may have actually liked it even more on a second viewing, as by knowing how it plays out I was able to better appreciate Mickle’s style.

What’s cool about the film is that it plays out as a triptych, with each third occupying a different genre. The first third is near horror, as Sam Shepard’s grieving dad stalks Michael C. Hall and his family, while the middle third is a mystery, as they try to piece together who the man Hall killed really was. The final third is the best of all, being an explosive action film, where Hall, Shepard, and Don Johnson, in an iconic performance as Texas P.I Jim Bob Luke, team-up to wreak vengeance on a gang of serial killer/pornographers on the run from the Dixie Mafia.

“I come from a very rural small town in Pennsylvania. Growing up, “Blood Simple” really spoke to me, along with movies like “Red Rock West,” “The Hot Spot” and “Angel Heart.” I wanted to make a movie that fell into a subgenre you don’t see anymore — the Southern noir. Also, the thing about (Joe R. Lansdale’s) book is that it sheds its skin every couple of chapters and becomes something different. It’s sort of a living, breathing thing. That’s what we wanted to emulate in the movie, but that makes it hard to pitch.” – Jim Mickle – Variety Interview 

It all adds up to an amazing little thrill-ride, anchored by the spot-on casting. Hall is great as the soft-hearted, everyman hero, while the late Shepard is at his grizzled best as the grieving dad. Best of all though is Don Johnson, in what turned out to be a comeback part paving the way for a nifty second wind in his career that continues to this day. He’s the ideal Lansdale hero, and it would be so cool if he turned up on “Hap & Leonard” at some point. It’s all coupled by cool, John Carpenter-style lensing by Ryan Samul, and an absolutely terrific score by Jeff Grace.

BEST SCENE: While the climactic shoot-out is arguably the movie’s big highlight, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it here. Instead, here’s a cool-as-shit moment where Don Johnson takes down a thug twice his size with some dirty play and attitude.

SEE IT: COLD IN JULY is on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix.

PARTING SHOT: COLD IN JULY is a real slam-bang indie thriller, and a must-see if you’re a fan of John Carpenter, genre mash-ups or any of the actors involved. Also – make sure to check out “Hap & Leonard.” It’s a great show, and a lot of the same COLD IN JULY team is involved.


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.