There's no anticipating the curves in Jim Mickle's "Cold in July," because there's no discernible map, or road, or even a horizon by which to get your bearings during this noirish trip into a moral abyss. Presenting itself at first as a psycho-motivational revenge drama -- homeowner kills intruder, just as intruder's scary dad is getting out of the pen -- it becomes increasingly malignant, to the point that a trip to "Cape Fear" would seem like a vacation. In fact, Mickle's own "Stake Land" (2010), which speculated about life after the Vampire Apocalypse, seems almost buoyant by comparison, because the hero here is so preternaturally ordinary, and understandably afraid.
He is Richard Danes (Michael C. Hall), a mild guy with a modified mullet who has a small-town framing shop, a wife who's slightly sour (Vinessa Shaw), a son who could be named Pugsley (Brogan Hall), and an apparent reputation for mildness unbefitting a Texan: When he blows away the burglar, everyone around him reacts with confused congratulations. To his credit, he feels terrible. That's how Mickle, ably abetted by Hall, leads us by the hand to a certain kind of Everyman perdition.
It's hard to tell much without giving away the film's sometimes tortured plot twists. The burglar turns out not to have been the son of the ex-con (Sam Shepard), who enlists his old Army buddy and private eye Bob (Don Johnson) to find the real son. He is involved with the feds, the Dixie Mafia and a video porn business, the nature of which turns Dad homicidal. Yes, there will be blood, and tonal shifts of radical nature. As each of the older stars enters the film, its entire architecture seems to shift. But the shifting and emotional colors are all about educating Richard, who may have stood his ground while losing his soul.
PLOT A husband and father in 1989 East Texas shoots an intruder and his cozy existence goes south.
CAST Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson
BOTTOM LINE Unpredictable, progressively violent, with a knockout performance by Hall.