Tag Archives: Sam Shepard

Jim Mickle’s Cold In July

Cold In July is a fairly ambiguous title that’s just this side of sinister but could mean anything. To writer director team Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, it means an unbearably intense mystery about fathers and sons, evil rearing it’s head in small town America, noir, perhaps the first buddy flick with three leads and a beautifully crafted 80’s aesthetic complete with an electronic John Carpenter style score that makes the film.

Michael ‘Dexter’ C. Hall plays a somewhat meek family man who accidentally shoots a prowler in his living room one summer night. Case closed? Not really, as it seems the burglar has a father (Sam Shepherd) who comes looking for answers. This guy is both a veteran and an ex con though, which makes him about the hardest piece of work you could find, but… soon it’s apparent that something isn’t quite right. The county Sheriff (Damici also doubles as a very fine actor) is clearly not being straight with Hall, dodging specific questions and veiling the truth. Eventually there’s an uneasy truce between Hall and Shepherd as they try to smoke out a deep set conspiracy, but things *really* kick into high gear with the arrival of Don Johnson’s Jim Bob Luke, a private detective with attitude to spare who blasts into the narrative in a giant red Cadillac convertible that becomes its own character and signifies a certain liveliness for the second two acts.

One of the coolest things about this one is that it’s billed as a mystery, which it lives up to and then some. From where it starts out as a nightmarish home invasion thriller to the levels of truth uncovered in the final act is quite the journey, an unpredictable journey that gets shockingly dark and perverse yet always retains a sense of humour, is constantly exciting and atmospheric. It always helps when the characters you take a trip like this with are engaging, and the dynamic between the three is something special. Hall is innocent enough until the darkness shows up at his door, Shepherd is the man of few words and lots of action, a cantankerous, difficult man whose moral compass eventually comes brutally into the forefront. Johnson straight up steals the show though, Jim Bob may well be his best character and even though the guy is kind of larger than life and ridiculous, he still fits within the narrative and Don makes him a tangible human being underneath the gloss and bluster. Watch for Wyatt Russell (Kurt’s kid), Happy Anderson, Lenny Flaherty and Vinessa Shaw. The original score by Jeff Grace is so damn good and carries this story nervously scene to scene with nerve shattering tension and those classic electronic synth tones that are coming back in such a big way. This was kind of overlooked on release but stands as tall as any big budget Hollywood crime thriller I’ve seen, and taller than many. Mickle keeps the direction tight and streamlined but allows for moments of character while keeping the story hurtling along with terrific momentum. Great film.

-Nate Hill

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Michael Apted’s Thunderheart

Thunderheart is a terrific effort that coasted by to fine reviews back in the 90’s and has since not only aged well but earned just a smidge of cult status. It’s a politically charged, racially themed, hard boiled mystery thriller set in and around a troubled Sioux Native Reservation in the badlands of South Dakota. Val Kilmer is the rookie FBI agent assigned to the case, and here’s the kicker: he’s a halfbreed, part American, part Native, and as such the stakes couldn’t be higher or the moral ground more complex for an investigation that’s anything but routine. Politically charged and full of dead ends, red herrings and setups, it’s a knockout of a flick that genuinely keeps you guessing. Kilmer’s character has two mentors, which I saw as the conflict that exists within him from being both a white American lawman and and having Native blood. His senior partner Sam Shepherd is the cynical, jaded hard edge of the bureau, a persona he himself is starting to cultivate, while motorbike riding, salt of the earth Native reservation cop Graham Greene calls attention to his past, the land he’s now on and the people that came before. There’s a lot of ancestral memory tied into the story too, as we see him have visions from hundreds of years ago that guide him through the dangerous and unpredictable mystery he’s trying to solve. Fred Dalton Thompson has a bit as the senator who sends the two agents out there to see what’s up, and character actor Fred Ward is nasty business as a local mercenary who’s perpetually up to no good and almost seems to be based on a real life individual, uncanny that. It’s pulp that makes you think, and has a beating heart behind every bit of intrigue, a film that’s long been underestimated but has a lot more to say than the lurid action movie cover art might suggest. Highly recommended.

-Nate Hill

“You got a problem with me?” – A review of Out Of The Furnace by Josh Hains

Scott Cooper’s sophomore film Out Of The Furnace follows Russell Baze (Christian Bale) through the empty, broken down streets of Braddock Pennsylvania like a lonesome ghost. He works in the local steel mill where his slowly dying father once worked, using what little money he makes to pay off his brother Rodney Jr.’s (Casey Affleck) gambling debts to sleazy local bookie John Petty (Willem Dafoe), all the while trying to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend Lena Taylor (Zoe Saldana). That all comes crashing down when Russell gets into trouble with the law and spends the next four years in prison, getting periodic visits from Rodney with updates on the state of their father’s health, Lena, and Rodney’s own exploits overseas in Iraq. Both men are broken and trying to keep it together for the sake of each other.

In due time Russell is released back into Braddock, the once thriving city on the verge of death with the mill soon to be closed. Things are different now for Russell, the times have changed, people have changed, and he has no other choice but to suck it up and trudge forward into the unforeseeable future. Rodney has picked up a deadly new habit, bare knuckle boxing, his way of violently paying off his debts to Petty before the stack gets too high. Russell tries talking him into a “normal” job to no avail; after multiple horrific tours of duty in Iraq, Rodney has been left shaken, twitchy, and is a mere shell of the man he once was. All that seems to be left is violence, anger, and undying love for Russell. Rodney begs John Petty to get him into bigger fights in backwoods New Jersey, dirtier, bloodier fights held under the watchful eye of local sociopathic hillbilly Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).

By this point in a standard issue revenge thriller, Rodney would have been long dead, but Cooper wisely makes the decision to give us time to settle into this world, and come to understand characters who feel like people, and not just cardboard cut outs. That the latter half of the movie devolves somewhat predictably into the same kind of movie it was previously avoiding replication of, is a disappointment. However, what does occur is given room to breathe. Cooper might be following the tropes of the genre, but he at least has the sense to let it unfold slowly and organically. Very little feels forced.

Things quickly turn ugly for Rodney and Petty, and when both go missing, the local law led by sheriff Wesley Barnes, exhausts all possible means in an attempt to find the pair, but can only go far because law enforcement lives in fear of DeGroat’s brutal reign of the area, and the fact that it’s outside of Braddock police’s jurisdiction doesn’t help matters either. So Russell and his uncle Red (Sam Shepard) cautiously take matters into their own hands the only way they know how.

Christian Bale delivers his most believable performance to date, fully embodying the heart and soul of Russell Baze, right down to the slightest nuances and subtleties of the man. He’s a truly masterful actor, strutting his stuff in such low-key fashion that because of the deep naturalism, rawness, and intense realism he imbues, within the first few minutes it stops feeling like a performance. It becomes, real, as Russell battles his inner demons and carries the weight of the world on his lean shoulders right up until the final frames fade to black.

Woody Harrelson knocks it out of the ball park as Jersey backwoods hillbilly sociopath Harlan DeGroat, topping his wildly over-the-top performance as Mickey in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. If you thought Mickey was a bad dude, wait until you watch DeGroat force a hot dog down the throat of a woman at a drive-in movie theatre in the films unnerving opening sequence. Harrelson has an uncanny ability of inhabiting even the most repulsive of villains with some semblance of humanity, and toward the end of the film does so with nothing more than an all-knowing expression upon his face and burning in his eyes as he delivers a couple heartfelt lines.

With this performance, Casey Affleck shed the boyish light his previous performances have always been garnished with, trading it in for a toned body and volatile outbursts of pent-up rage. He gives the more energetic performance of the two brothers, effortlessly capturing Rodney’s broken down mannerisms. Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, and Sam Shepard each provide the right amount of nuance and naturalism to their perfomances that blend evenly with their bleak surroundings and the trio of astounding lead performances.

In a scene near the midsection of the film, Russell and Lena have a conversation on a bridge about their future after Russell has been released from prison. Despite Russell’s plea to make things right between them, Lena cannot commit to him anymore because she’s carrying Barnes’ child. In a moment that ought to shatter even the hardest of hearts into a million pieces, Russell congratulates Lena, assuring her she’ll be a good mom amidst tears from both of them. This scene assuredly carries the finest moments of acting we’ve seen from Bale and Saldana to date. 

The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi (The Grey) is impeccable, capturing beautifully and quite often starkly, the dreary and dirty grit of Braddock, the crispness of the violence, the cold bitterness of the dialogue dripping from the tongue of the people inhabiting the film. Scott Cooper directs this film with ease, honestly and authentically capturing the bleak essence of the dying town, the harsh realities of the effects the economy is having on the people, and the brutality that is the violence that twists their worlds upside down in the blink of an eye.