Review: ‘Cold in July’ delivers unsettling thrills

You will think you know where you’re headed in “Cold in July,” and during the first half-hour, you’ll be right. After that, the movie suddenly changes direction and rolls through a series of small twists (none as startling as the first) before a grimly effective conclusion.

Jim Mickle, who adapted Joe R. Lansdale’s novel with co-writer Nick Damici, directs “July” with an unhurried hand. The menace comes not so much from what’s being done as what might be done, what it may be out of anyone’s power to prevent.

Richard Dane, a picture framer in East Texas in 1989, surprises a burglar while holding his dad’s old revolver. When his trigger finger slips, the burglar dies. Dane (Michael C. Hall) resents his newfound celebrity as a villain-killer, though a police lieutenant (Damici) assures him the burglar had devoted his life to felonies.

Dane, his wife (Vinessa Shaw) and little son (Brogan Hall, no relation to Michael) try to resume a normal life, but Ben Russel (Sam Shepard) won’t let that happen. He’s the ex-con whose son Dane shot, and he starts to play disturbing tricks on the family. Just as we’re sure the picture is headed for “Cape Fear” territory, Dane and Russell discover something that changes their relationship.

Now the story swerves into Elmore Leonard territory: Seedy, smarter-than-he-seems private investigator Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson) drives over from Houston to complicate the revenge plot, which involves the Dixie Mafia. Eventually the tale moves toward the grim, semi-apocalyptic finale I associate with Lonsdale and this genre.

The 1989 setting now seems long, long ago. Without the Internet, characters do painstaking research by hand. Without cell phones, they can’t reach people at key moments. (Jim Bob boasts about a bulky phone mounted in his black-and-orange car like a guy who has bought the Koh-i-noor Diamond.)

The movie sometimes shows a sense of humor. It’s funny to see Johnson, the epitome of cop style on “Miami Vice,” as the paunchy, unshaven pig farmer/private eye. Hall, television’s most famous serial killer on “Dexter,” now plays a gentle man disturbed by violence; surely that’s an in-joke. (The film has two North Carolina ties. Michael C. Hall grew up in Raleigh, where he went to Ravenscroft School; Brogan Hall, who was 8 when the film was shot and has since turned 9, lives in Charlotte.)

And though the action sequences may make you queasy, Mickle shows restraint; the nastiest event in the script happens off-screen, and we’re never supposed to enjoy or be amused by the violence. A decent person who kills a man, even a bad one, always faces moral consequences, and “Cold in July” never loses sight of that truth.