It says awful things about me that as soon as the title card said “East Texas - 1989” I started a mental clock running for the moment when something terrible would happen that could easily be averted in modern times with a ten second call on a cellphone. Hollywood is still wrestling with the way in which its slow production cycle no longer keeps pace with technology; a movie can spend ten years in development hell only to have its plot turned into implausible lunacy by modern convenience. Tragedy’s always depended on poor communications, and scripts go crazy trying to drag communications back to the comparative stone age of a mere decade ago. Well, not only was I wonderfully wrong about the plot turning on bad communications, but at one point Don Johnson tries to make a phone call on a 1989 cell phone which makes absolutely no difference to anything. It was like the movie had been lying in wait for me.
What really amazed me was that in this year of our lord 2014, someone could actually get the money to make a movie out of a Joe Lansdale book, and then go right ahead and make a movie which was faithful to the baggy weirdness which makes Lansdale so much fun to read. His books meander; the characters encounter problems and ignore them or just plain forget about them because something else has come up. The big bad appears half way through the book and gets hit by a truck, so everyone goes for a drink (this may not actually happen in any of his books, but hell, read them all and try to find out if I’m wrong; he needs the money and you need the exercise). He’s great fun and completely nuts; the last movie adaptation of a Joe Lansdale thought was Bubba Ho-Tep, which has Elvis, JFK and malevolent mummies. In a 1980s nursing home. Just in case you’re still reading this instead of looking that up on Netflix, it has Bruce Campbell as Elvis.
Oh, good, you’re back. Wasn’t that great? Shouldn’t there be some kind of law that everything else Lansdale has come up with should be made more widely available?
Anyhow. Cold in July is a whole lot less weird than Bubba Ho-Tep, but it’s still a lot weirder than the average noir. It starts out feeling like a really chilly revenge thriller, as Michael C Hall caps a burglar (there’s blood splatter, Dexter fans, you weird creepy people) almost by accident. He’s believably unmoored by the whole experience, which kicks up a gear when the burglar’s hard-ass convict father (Sam Shephard) shows up with revenge on his mind. We get about a half hour of mounting dread, and then the whole thing takes a hard right as Hall realises that the guy he shot doesn’t look anything like the wanted poster for the guy he’s told he shot. And that ought to be taking us into a conspiracy thriller, but before long, there’s another swerve off into a completely different genre as Hall and Shephard team up with Don Johnson to bring down the bad guys that no-one saw coming. One review I read said that Hall, Shephard and Johnson seemed to be in three completely different movies, but for me that’s a lot of the fun; life’s like that. Hall’s impressive as an ordinary guy who’s in over his head but can’t think of how to turn back; Shephard is a taciturn and brooding dead-ender and Johnson’s having the time of his life as a comedy Texas redneck. And together, they fight crime….
It’s much better than I had any right to expect; it dares not to hang together the way ordinary movies do. I hope they now blow the dust off his Hap Collins books and make a TV show out of them. Hap and Leonard would be great, in the absence of my long-faded dreams of a second series of Terriers.
Bonus credit if these guys then make a movie out of The Drive-in, a book which even Lansdale admits is completely insane, what with the hell mouth in a Texas drive-in and a Dome-like premise which makes the Under the Dome seem like Peter Rabbit. The flavour of the whole enterprise is captured in the title to the follow up; The Drive-in: Not Just one of them sequels.