Cinematic nostalgia for the 80s has evolved in recent years, moving beyond a VH1-spiked referential kitsch into an auterist appreciation of the darker “cinema du look” style, which trickled down from its French origins into a more violent American variation known to fans of horror and action thrillers from that period. Even before stateside genre directors processed cinema du look into grindhouse sausage, critical assessment of the movement had generally skewed negative, citing the overall emphasis on visual flair in lieu of substance as evidence of a less intellectual approach to filmmaking that appealed to visceral pleasures. Yet, whether due to a larger cultural shift away from ironic appropriation of Gen X retro to a darker awareness of the decade’s legacy, or simply because a few visually attuned directors dig expressionist lighting and soundtrack driven sequences, filmmakers have eschewed the consensus of critics. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive provides perhaps the most obvious example of a contemporary film that derives its mood and atmosphere from the cinema du look. In perhaps a more interesting take, Ti West’s The House of the Devil utilized the qualities of the cinema du look-inspired horror films to craft an atmospheric “period” film based on one of the decade’s popular urban myths.
Jim Mickle’s new film Cold in July contributes to this burgeoning trend (let’s not call it a movement just yet). Using a similar approach to that of West, Mickle borrows the visual tropes of 1980’s B-movies to adapt Joe R. Lansdale’s noir novel set in small town Texas during the same time period. In the film’s opening sequence, Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) creeps through the hallways of his suburban home, bathed in blue nocturnal light, as he fatally shoots a masked burglar. When the dead man’s father (Sam Shepard) begins stalking Richard’s family, the simple case of self-defense escalates into a more complicated series of events that bend the genre from neo-noir to revenge Western. This fusion of genres finds its representative in the character of Jim Bob (Don Johnson), flamboyant cowboy farmer/private investigator. Johnson’s presence also alludes to another cultural appropriator of the cinema du look style, Miami Vice; a music-soaked shot of Jim Bob driving his convertible at night offers an obvious nod to the pilot episode directed by Michael Mann.
In this case, the throwback cinematic style intends to match form to function as a means of deconstruction. Just as West tried to recreate a horror film set in the 80s as a critical examination of societal cracks, Mickle evokes the sleazy thrillers of the time period to examine the underpinnings of violence and corruption in American culture. Both films even use the same composer, Jeff Grace; one can imagine the directors simply dropping off a pile of V/H/S tapes at his door. At times, however, Cold in July proves to be too good an imitation, succumbing to its own temptations to create moody suspense sequences and artificially lit action scenes. The violence is present, but the corruption, like all good corruption, gets swept under the rug by the film’s somewhat artificial resolution. In a sense, and without giving too much away, Mickle settles for the cowboy’s justice rather than the detective’s. When the damaged Richard settles into bed to get a good night’s rest for the first time since the film’s opening scene, the questions that still linger have been pushed too far outside both the frames of the film and the framework of the narrative.