'Cold in July' Sizzles

Sundance shoot 'em up: Dexter and Miami Vice stars have a blast in new Texas thriller

Sundance shoot 'em up: Dexter & Miami Vice stars have blast in movie

Michael C. Hall in Cold in July Sundance Film Festival
A man with a mullet (and a gun): Michael C. Hall stars in Cold in July. Photo by Ryan Samul/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Don Johnson in Cold in July
Don Johnson, as a downhome Houston investigator, practically steals the movie. Courtesy photo
Jim Mickle director of Cold in July Sundance Film Festival
Director Jim Mickle worked eight years to get the Joe R. Lansdale book made into a movie. Photo by Scott McDermott/courtesy of Sundance Institute
Michael C. Hall in Cold in July Sundance Film Festival
Don Johnson in Cold in July
Jim Mickle director of Cold in July Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY, Utah — After eight seasons of playing a likable serial killer in Dexter, Michael C. Hall knew it was time to do something different. So when he was approached to portray the owner of a picture-framing store in a small-town Texas whose life gets turned upside down when an intruder breaks into his house in the film Cold in July, he jumped at the opportunity.

"I liked that my character wasn't inherently remarkable, yet all these amazing things were happening around him," Hall told a recent standing-room-only audience at a screening at the Sundance Film Festival. "Dexter was winding down at the time, and I really wanted to play a guy who only 'accidentally' kills people."

 "Dexter was winding down at the time and I really wanted to play a guy who only 'accidentally' kills people." 

Based on a novel by Texas writer Joe R. Lansdale, Cold in July is a rock 'em, sock 'em pulp fiction thriller that starts like a house afire — the first 30 minutes will have you on the edge of your seat — before morphing into a buddy comedy with a dark twist and a bloody ending.

Life is pretty routine in an East Texas town until Richard Dane (Hall) shoots and kills a masked man in his living room in the middle of the night. Turns out the burglar is a convicted felon whose father (Sam Shepard) just got released from Huntsville prison and is out for revenge.

I don't want to reveal much more about the movie, because it's much more satisfying to have no idea what happens next. The movie takes a lot of interesting and sometimes implausible twists before its violent conclusion. 

After the screening in Utah, the audience had a lot of questions for Mickle, Hall, Don Johnson (who practically steals the movie as a wily Houston investigator who drives a red Cadillac with fuzzy dice on the rear view mirror) and author Lansdale, the only one on stage with an authentic Texas accent. Lansdale lives in Nacogdoches and is writer-in-residence at Stephen F. Austin State University.

When I heard they were shooting in New York I said, "OOOOH HELL!," Lansdale said.

It took Mickle and co-screenwriter Nick Damici, who plays a shady sheriff in the movie, eight years to adapt Lansdale's book and get it on screen. Though it's set in East Texas in the 1980s, the movie was filmed in upstate New York with tax incentives.

"When I heard they were shooting in New York I said, 'OOOOH HELL!,' Lansdale said. "Then [Mickle] sent two photographs, one of upstate New York and one of Wast Texas, and I couldn't tell the difference — except they had a mountain up there, but we didn't shoot the mountain."

The movie is chock full of 1980s technology and appliances — a cellphone the size of a brick gets a lot of laughs. "They came over to my house and found it all," joked Johnson, who was one of the biggest stars of the decade in the hit '80s television series Miami Vice.

"We had a great art department," Mickle added. "They even made some stuff with photographs on contact paper just applied to wood."

And Hall's hair is a modified mullet — the ultimate '80s hairstyle.

Asked how he learned to portray a Texas character, Johnson said, "I went out with a lot of Texas girls," as the audience erupted in laughter. "My daughter Dakota was born in Austin," he added. (Dakota Johnson has snared the lead in the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey, currently being filmed in Canada.)

"I was born in North Carolina … not exactly Texas," Hall said. "I watched lots of films set in Texas, and drew from those ,and Joe was on the set to help. I also got inspiration from that mullet hairstyle I was sporting." 

IFC Films has purchased Cold in July for release later this year.