Cold in July's Jim Mickle and Michael C. Hall On Masculinity's Frailty

Jim Mickle's moody, genre-skipping film Cold in July opens on a terrifying home invasion and only gets crazier from there. Dexter's Michael C. Hall plays Richard, a man who's thrust into a situation he's in no way prepared for, and then finds himself seduced by it. He ends up pursing a path that blurs the line between vigilantism and wanton criminality.

I don't want to give too much away, because part of the joy of this movie is watching it glide from shocking plot point to shocking plot point (adapted from Joe R. Lansdale's 1989 crime novel of the same name). I will say that it's a serpentine sort of revenge movie that Mickle envisioned as a "straight-up Western," but one that also incorporates elements of horror and comedy, alike.

Like Breaking Bad's Walter White and Blue Ruin's Dwight, Richard is clearly not cut out for this huge, morally ambiguous task that he undertakes. Cold in July reminded me of the kind of B action/thrillers you'd see on cable during the '80s with a key difference: In those, the masculinity of the protagonist was a given, whereas in Cold in July, Richard isn't at all confident about his manliness. Though his motivation initially appears to be run-of-the-mill family-protecting, as the film progresses and his situation intensifies, his selfishness becomes clearer.

I love Cold in July. In terms of its aesthetics, mood, and referential nature, it's an extremely cool movie about an extremely uncool guy. I talked to its director, Jim Mickle, and its star, Michael C. Hall, last week in the office of Cold in July's publicist. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.

Gawker: You set this movie in 1989, and it looks like something that would have played on HBO in '89. It's a layered sort of period piece. Is that intentional?

Jim Mickle: Yeah. It was when Michael brought up [his character having a] mullet, it sort of set a bar for the movie, a baseline in a way. I probably never would have thought to go as far with the '80s stuff and the music, but when he did that, it was a sign that we could literally let our hair down and have fun with it. Until then, I thought of it as more of a straight-up Western, but then it was like, no: this actually feels like the movies of that era.

It's a vanity-free role that you have, Michael. Your outfits are horribly misshapen throughout.

Michael C. Hall: Yeah, the high-waisted, cinched, pleated, mass-produced slacks. I didn't want to shy away from my sense that Richard was in no way inherently cool. He was aspiring to a kind of cool, and then he found these two models of cool [played by Sam Shepard and Don Johnson], and couldn't stay away from 'em.

I like how ambiguous but hinted upon Richard's motivation is. Though he's ostensibly protecting his family, his objective ultimately feels selfish. It feels like this is the first cool thing that ever happened to him, and he's riding it. There's even that line when he's lying to his wife about his phony job prospect: "I been waiting for something big like this."

MCH: Yeah, exactly. He's telling a lie, but he's telling the truth more than at any other moment.

He doesn't even seem to like his son very much.

MCH: ...and seems to wonder if his son really likes him. They don't connect. They don't get along. [Vinessa Shaw's] character seems to be wearing the really bad pants in the family. I think he wants to own his right to be a man, and be a father. At the end of the film, I have a sense that he's going to be haunted, to a degree, by this experience, but also isn't going to need something big to happen again. He can be the big thing in his life. He can step into the role he's been feeling like a fraud playing up until this point. He can be a husband, he can be a father in a way that he couldn't own before.

Jim, you're 35 this year?

JM: Yeah.

Did you identify with Richard at all?

JM: It was more my dad. It's funny that you say that, because people would say, "[Richard]'s 30," and I was always like, "No, he's 35." He's old enough to know better but he's not old enough that he's so set in his ways that he won't be tempted to do this. In the book, he's haunted by his father, and I hope we've kept that sense about it. We've limited what we've conveyed in the movie, and a lot of it is conveyed through his sense of who he is and what he's looking up to. I always kind of imagine if my dad was mowing the lawn and Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson pulled up in a cool car, and were like, "Dude, we need you to go on a journey." My dad would be like, "Uh, I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm going to get in the backseat of the car. I'm gonna try." I just hung out with my dad this weekend, and it rang true. He kind of dressed that way and he wasn't that cool. At some point he came home in the early '80s and he'd gotten a perm. And this was a few years after the time when it was cool for dudes to get perms. In some weird way, I feel like you [to Michael] played my dad, trying to be cool, trying to hang with the older guys. So yeah, not me. I don't have kids, I have dogs.

This movie feels very studied, and there are moments that are trope-like, if not flat-out cliched. I get the sense that you're aware of this, if not playing with it.

JM: Yeah.

So tell me about playing with cliches.

JM: I will paraphrase James Gray, who paraphrased someone else when he said that cliche is just myth done badly. I think that's really true. That's what was fun when I read the book, I think ultimately the movie came around to it: I felt like Joe Lansdale had seen all those movies that I loved and read all those books and authors that I loved and had seen Night of the Hunter a million times, Cape Fear a million times, and then he probably went to bed and had a crazy nightmare and all these things influenced that and then he woke up and spit all these things out. It was this interesting story from a family guy's perspective that was filtering all these things together. I think if we had tried to do it a hundred percent straightforward, it would have felt a little false, or it would have felt maybe uneventful in a way. It would have felt like, "Yeah, but I've seen all those elements before." What's kind of fun is hopefully you let the audience know that you know we've seen these things before, but part of the fun is that they're in this combination with this sort of energy.

I also like the candor of: Yes, these are cliches, but they work. Like creating empathy when Richard knows what's up but the police won't believe him. Or thunder as a device.

JM: Totally. I still cry in football movies when the football is in the air in slow motion. That'll always work.

I get the sense that you're out to please a crowd with this movie.

JM: Yeah. Our last movie [last year's We Are What We Are] tried to challenge the crowd a little bit, and that's rewarding in its own way, when you get the sense that that works, but then there's also a lot of people that are pissed off by that. There's a lot of elements about this that are inherently fun. Reading the book, I was exhilarated by it. I reread it as soon as I was finished, just, "How did you do that? This is so enjoyable."

MCH: I think this is more moment-to-moment pleasing, but more broadly challenging in terms of the narrative structure.

Fatherhood is a huge driving force in this movie. This is a dude movie. The meaty roles are for the men, even though Vinessa Shaw's taco salad-eating scene is amazing. Did you worry at all about the argument that this movie is misogynistic?

MCH: I think it's about fathers and sons. It's man-on-man violence. I don't think there's any anti-female...

JM: No, I think so, too. [Shaw's] character in the book has a lot more to do in the story. She follows Richard for a long time. To me, it took away from the sense that this is something this guy had to explore. When it was a shared experience, it pulled away something from it. I think there was something to him having to go through this alone, and knowing that it's the wrong thing to do in a lot of ways, and knowing that he'd get in trouble for it. That's what was important about that. So no, I didn't. And also [We Are What We Are] was the same thing but with women. It was sort of a female-empowerment story. I feel like we earned it, in a way.

Michael, did you feel any specific pressure coming off Dexter? This is your first major role since that show ended.

MCH: Rather than pressure, I felt a sense of liberation. It felt like an epilogue to the Dexter experience in as much as I got to play somebody who killed somebody and actually felt something about it other than, "I just flushed another shit down the toilet." [Richard] was really traumatized and haunted by it. I finished Dexter and a part of me was like, "What have I done? Oh my god." I realized that I had to turn part of myself off so that I could keep doing that and act as if it was what I needed to do and that that was OK. If I'm inspired to do something, I feel a sense of duty and pressure to guard whatever bit of the truth that I have to guard, but more than anything I was just excited. I felt like I'd gone and joined a carnival.

It's interesting that portraying violence can weigh on you. Jim, what are your thoughts on that, having directed horror movies and now this movie, which has elements of horror? Do you feel any particular responsibility to the world when directing a violent movie?

JM: No...I mean, that's not true, there are elements. When we had our first phone call [about the movie], Trayvon Martin was a big thing at that point, not that it isn't now, but all that stuff picked up and that was one of the reasons why it was important to keep it in the '80s in a way. I think now, you got the Cliven Bundy ranch, and you get dudes like, "This is my gun, this my land," and I think if we did a movie set now about a guy who defends his living room, there would have been a politicization of that that would have taken away form the fact that it really isn't about the violence. There's a seduction to that, and it's part of what this guy's idea of masculinity is. It ranks on the scale. It was important to keep it personal in that sense. But no, and maybe I justify it because this is our least crazy thing, but also, I probably rationalize it because I think we're doing things that hopefully make you think a little bit more, so it isn't totally like just getting off on just watching people getting slaughtered. There's always a point behind that stuff, especially in We Are What We Are. It's a condemnation of a lot of other things, and so...no, I don't have a great sense of social responsibility (laughs).

Regarding masculinity, this movie revels in it to a certain point, but it's also...if not satirical then revealing of the bullshit that guys do in the name of it.

MCH: That's what's cool about Richard being the guy who gets seduced, because he's a guy who, in the first quarter of the film, has a distaste for someone who'd say, "Good job!" [in response to his self-defense killing of an intruder]. He hates that shit. A part of the reason he hates it is that he has a degree of insecurity about it, as well.

JM: Early on, when we were trying to find the essence of what the story was about, I called Joe, the book's author, who's a Texas guy, born and bred. He teaches martial arts, invented his own. I told him, "There's a bunch of issues the financiers have, like, 'Why does Richard do this?'" To me, that was the point of the entire movie—hopefully, that's what's explored and hopefully we don't give you all the answers. But he said, "Have you ever been in a fight, Jim?" I was like, "I kinda was one time. Threw a punch kinda..." And then I was like fuck, fuck, I haven't. I've been in intense sports situations, but I don't know a hundred percent what that's like.

At the time, there was a guy who lived next to my girlfriend, who'd get drunk every night and go out in the back yard and just scream. One night, she came out and yelled at him, and he called her a bitch and a cunt and, "Fuck you, I can do whatever I want in my back yard." I wasn't there, she told me about it, and the next time I went over, I brought a baseball bat. I just kept it by the door. And there was this whole part of me that was just like: Could I do it? If this guy came out, could I hit the dude? So even though part of it is this sort of comical study of that, there's a sense of that that's in everybody. That's what was fun about this, getting to explore that without having to hit someone with a baseball bat.

Cold in July is out in select theaters and on demand today.