Notes on “COLD IN JULY” and “THE GUEST” at Sundance
While “genre-heavy” in lineup, the 2014 Sundance Film Festival is not particularly confined to horror. In fact, a couple of this year’s most highly anticipated films see two of our brightest “new” horror filmmakers transition from one slice of pulp to another, carrying previous themes and aesthetics over to energizing, high quality thrillers that will be of no less interest to their, and our, fans. Directors Jim Mickle and Adam Wingard, and their respective partners-in-crime (an apt term, here) Nick Damici and Simon Barrett have crafted two synth-driven, colorful, Carpenter font-using pictures that inadvertently turned into a fantastic double feature in Park City.
Mickle’s COLD IN JULY— from the novel by a writer with his own legendary horror pedigree, Joe R. Lansdale—is a tough, southern crime yarn about a family man who gazes into the abyss and finds it falls much deeper than he imagined. Michael C. Hall plays the man in question, a comparatively weak father and husband in 1989 East Texas who shoots a home intruder and, in coping with the consequence, comes under fire from the dead man’s ex-con father and realizes the circumstances are anything but cut-and-dry.
COLD IN JULY is in the grand traditions of hard boiled and no-frills. The further it twists the better and better it gets, putting Hall and the incredible Sam Shepard side-by-side. Their chemistry is something else, amplified by the addition of Don Johnson, cast incredibly and with no sort of wink to the audience. Johnson, instead, brings lightness to the air as a pig farmer/private investigator and the three together lead an intense, masculine men on a mission tale. Only, it’s a mission whose goal is only “to see how far this thing goes” and ends up in grim confrontation.
A director whose every film improves, Mickle’s style on hand here is astounding, and greatly so when the film’s tonal shifts are considered. COLD IN JULY opens up as Richard’s world does, and Mickle infuses the beer-soaked haze, grit and tough-talk not only with requisite twang, but heart-pounding synth and dazzling neon, as well. The director is clearly becoming a staple of Americana-infused genre. STAKE LAND put his own spin on an open road movie, while WE ARE WHAT WE ARE considered the nature of American tradition and when to cut it off. COLD IN JULY considers all sides of American masculinity in an almost 70s cinema fashion, but thanks to Jeff Grace’s outstanding score, the atmosphere eventually lands Peckinpah-in the-80s.
THE GUEST, meanwhile, is entirely more self-aware and Wingard and Barret have an awesome time making it so. Similarly coated in an 80s mindset, the thriller expands on their “cinema of mistrust”, in which at least one character is nothing as they seem. In this case, it’s the titular guest, a young soldier who visits a family with a loving message from their dead son and becomes entwined in their lives. Of course, Andrew isn’t all ‘ma’m,’ ‘sir’ and helping to chop vegetables; his demeanor can take sinister turns and while it’s arguable his intentions aren’t entirely evil, his choices and inherent nature can make him so.
Until all is revealed however, Wingard so, so stylishly gives Andrew a place in each family member’s lives. To the parents, he’s therapist and protector. To their young, introverted son, he’s fantastically inappropriate mentor on how to deal with popped-collar bully assholes (dig that barfight). To their daughter, he’s both an object of affection and aggression, one to snoop on and make mixtapes for. All the while, Dan Stevens (DOWNTON ABBEY) plays the uninvited in amazingly smooth fashion. It almost feels as if Stevens and Wingard are together riffing on Ryan Gosling’s DRIVE persona, and having a tremendous go making it impossibly cool and calculated, yet hilarious and overwrought. Almost everything is amplified into a little bit of madness, from deliberate push-ins, to Stevens emerging from a perfectly steamy bathroom, to just what the solider is running from.
When hell comes down on it all, Wingard delivers on action chops he promised in YOU’RE NEXT. This time, it’s far more military-based with bullets flying until the final act in a high school gym, dressed for Halloween. Here, the filmmakers are unable to fully cut ties with their love of the macabre as Stevens pursues characters through a makeshift funhouse, backed by a goth/new wave/let’s have our first kiss groove.
It’s not that both films are of an ilk we don’t necessarily see anymore—considering our On Demand nature, almost any type of movie is surely being made—it’s that these two are so properly crafted. They are earnest and playful and worthy successors to their forbearers. In Mickle’s case, it’s a haunting, violent grit and in Wingard’s, it’s an adrenaline-fueled Cannon haze. Both deserve a beer.