Note: Contains some spoilers
The main thrust of the reviews on the Joe Lansdale adaptation Cold In July all seem to focus on notions of masculinity, which, in my opinion, is completely missing the point of the movie.
I mean, I can see why they do it. There’s an easy, visible progression there, as nebbishy Richard Dane accidentally plugs an intruder in his living room, gradually gets more decisive (sometimes disastrously so), and ends up in the middle of a scene of horrific gunplay that would have caused his start-of-movie self to piddle in his boxers.
But the easy reading is the wrong one. Because the movie’s not about nebulously macho masculinity, per se, and the acquiring thereof. It’s about fathers and sons, and everything else is peripheral.
Dane, played with sweaty indecision by Michael C. Hall, lets us know very early on that he’s a bad father. It’s not that he’s not loving; he clearly loves his little boy and will do anything to keep him safe. But he’s bad at the actual parenting stuff. He snaps, he yells, he knocks things over, he curses in front of the kid, and he has no patience for normal small kid behavior. Yes, he’s under a lot of strain, but even so, the portrait of Richard Dane as father is not a flattering one.
Then Sam Shepard’s Ben Russell rolls onto the scene. It’s his son Freddie that Dane shot and killed, and he’s looking for payback. Not because he and his son were particularly close - he hadn’t seen him since he was about the same age as Dane’s little boy - but because in his ethos, that’s what fathers do. And so he goes about terrorizing Dane by means of threats to the boy - a mutilated teddy bear with bullets all around, a late-night visit to the boy’s bedroom - and by extension, to Dane’s ability to be a father. To protect his son in the way that Ben couldn’t.
And then something happens, and Dane ends up with a chained-up Russell in the cabin left to him by his father, and things snap into focus.
Because what Dane’s looking for, really, isn’t protection or masculinity. He’s looking for a father figure, someone to show him how to do a job he doesn’t feel capable of doing. And so, in two quick exchanges, director Jim Mickie lays it all out. When asked by his long-suffering wife how he got mud on his shoes (as he’s surreptitiously slipping extra items into their shopping cart), Dane responds that the night before, he’d gone up to check on the cabin his father had left them. “Dad didn’t leave much,” he says.
Then when he gets there, Russell complains that he’s missing one of his boots. Without a word, Dane goes to the closet, fetches a pair of his father’s boots, and hands them over. Literally, the man who terrorized him is now stepping into his father’s shoes, because that’s the best role model for fatherhood that he’s got.
And that’s why when Ben and his private eye/pig farmer buddy Jim Bob (played with devil-may-care abandon by Don Johnson) go looking for what happened to Freddie, Dane tags along. Not because he’s on a quest to find the fountain of macho. It’s because it’s what a good son does, even a son who’s in over his head. Even a son who drinks milk at home but Lone Star on the road when handed a beer by “dad”, even a son who fired a pistol by accident once and now finds himself having to go in strapped in a life-or-death situation that’s East Texas mud-level messy because he’s not letting “dad” go off without help he clearly needs. When Ben sees evidence of his kid’s horrific wrongdoing, it’s Dane who’s the first to go out to talk to him. When the evidence first comes to light, it’s Dane who doesn’t want Ben to see it, to protect him.
All this, for the man who broke into his home and stood over his sleeping boy, because sometimes you need a father figure just that bad.
And Ben, in his own way, reciprocates. Frankie’s the son he had but never knew, now Dane’s the son he’s got, more or less. By putting on those boots, he accepts the obligation. By not running the first chance he gets, he acknowledges the bond. And by stepping in when Dane’s about to get himself into a bar fight, he’s protecting this new son in the way both he and Dane have failed to protect their biological children earlier in the movie.
As for the movie’s climax, it’s ultimately a confrontation between Ben and Freddie. Ben hesitates in what he thinks is his duty toward his sun, which puts both Jim Bob and Dane (already bloodied) in the line of fire. Only then can he do what he needs to to, to do right by his son by his code. A gut-shot Freddie’s last words are “Are you really my dad?” spoken with surprise and wonder and maybe even a little bit of hope. And then Ben ends things the only way they can be ended.
As for Dane, he goes home. Bandages up that bloody ear, gets in the car and drives back to his house. Goes inside and climbs into bed with his wife and son and just lays there, eyes open. The apprenticeship is over. What comes next is uncertain. But he’s understands better what he’s up against, and maybe, a little bit of how to do better than either of his dads did.