Pulp fiction doesn't come much better than Cold in July, a gritty, grisly - and perversely giddy - crime yarn directed by Pottstown-born indie-film provocateur Jim Mickle.

Adapted by Mickle and writing partner Nick Damici from Texas author Joe R. Lansdale's 1989 hardboiled thriller, Cold in July is one of the most hyperbolic, absurdist crime yarns since David Lynch's Blue Velvet redefined the genre.

Packing more plot twists than a bag of pretzels - and shot through with a mordant humor just as dry - the film features a cast as idiosyncratic as its style and oddball mood shifts.

Dexter star Michael C. Hall is virtually unrecognizable as the story's Everyman hero Richard Dane, a mullet-and-mustache-sporting small businessman, devoted husband, and father, who is celebrated by his small East Texas town when he shoots a burglar in his house.

Things start going haywire after local cop Ray Price (played by screenwriter Damici) tells Richard that the intruder's father, ex-con Ben Russell (Sam Shepard), wants to avenge his son's death. The 70-year-old Shepard exudes a menacing vitality as the gun-crazy Ben that's awe-inspiring.

Crazy really comes to town with the addition of Jim Bob Luke to this hallucinogenic goulash of explosive masculinity. Don Johnson steals the show as Jim Bob, a smooth-talking pig farmer and private detective who rides a hot red Cadillac convertible - with, yes, a pair of longhorns attached to its grill.

It's difficult to describe Cold in July without giving away its various twists and turns, each more outrageous than the last. Suffice it to say, the story pits Richard against a rising tide of evil involving the Dixie mafia, a snuff-film ring, and corrupt cops.

It ends, as you'd expect, with a bloodbath.

Mickle's talent lies in his intelligent handling of genre stories. He uses horror tropes such as medical atrocities (Mulberry St.), vampirism (Stake Land), and cannibalism (We Are What We Are) to lay bare the ugly underbelly of small-town life.

He excels with Cold in July, a bracing, stark, and shocking portrait of the dark specter that haunts the American Dream.


Cold in July *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Jim Mickle. With Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessacq Shaw, Wyatt Russell, Nick Damici. Distributed by IFC Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 49 mins.
Parent's guide: R (extreme bloody violence, sexuality, profanity).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.