Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Cold In July: Grappling With Character and Narrative

I watched Cold In July last night.  It's not a bad movie.  The acting and directing are stellar, and it is in some ways original and daring.  But when it was over, I was more frustrated than satisfied. Be warned: the following contains spoilers.

Rich (Michael C. Hall) accidentally kills a man whom he and Ben  (Sam Shepard) are told is Ben's son.  Ben makes thinly veiled threats, but the police refuse to act until Ben does something illegal.  The police are very concerned about the law, apparently.  Then Ben breaks into Rich's house.  That gives the police enough suspicion to watch the house, but not to arrest Ben?  Fine.  So they watch and find out that Ben never left the house.  Well, they don't see him, but they assume it was him.  So they arrest him. For what?  For breaking in and not leaving until late at night?  They couldn't have just arrested him for breaking in in the first place? In any case, they arrest him.  Then the police try to kill him.  They sneak him out of jail and try to make it look like an accidental death.  For what?  There is no reason at all for the police to want him dead, or to break the law to get rid of him.  One minute, the police are very concerned about carefully following the rules; the next, they are breaking them without any reason.

What was Ben going to do to Rich's son, anyway?  He could have killed him.  He could have kdinapped him.  He did nothing.  Did he just want to scare Rich?  He hid in the house all day and then risked getting caught (or killed) by the cops, just to scare them?  Ben must be insane to do that to a person's family just because the father accidentally killed his son in self-defense.  Which makes us wonder:  Why was Ben in jail for most of his son's life, anyway?  We never find out.

The Ben of the first part of the film is a dark, deranged and menacing figure.  Then Rich saves his life.  After that, Ben seems remarkably centered and disciplined, with a strong sense of duty.  Sure, he persumably a bit disturbed and he is clearly comfortable taking the law in his own, violent hands; but he's not so off-kilter that he would terrorize a family in these circumstances.  He is not so dark and not at all deranged or menacing.  Instead of carrying through with Ben's sinister edge in the second half of the film, Ben comes across as too likable, too principled, too moral.  This is not the same Ben that was in the first half of the movie.

This may to some extent be intentional.  The movie might be saying something about monsters and men.  Perhaps Ben has two sides:  one is a monster, the other is a man.  And we can see Rich's character arc in these terms.  By the end of it all, Rich has changed.  He is no longer afraid to use his gun.  He kills with determination.  Rich and Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson) help him along with this transformation, but it comes from within.  Rich changes himself, and it is compelling drama.  He becomes more like Ben and Jim Bob Luke.  Perhaps we are supposed to be left with this question:  Has Rich become a man, or has he become a monster?

Perhaps they wanted Ben to have two sides, one monster and one man.  But in that case, we should see them co-existing.  We should be able to interpret the same action from both sides.  Instead, we just get two different characters when it is convenient to the plot.  Thus, Ben's character doesn't ring true, and the entire story that brings him and Rich together is unconvincing.  It's really a shame.  I found a lot to enjoy in Cold In July, but couldn't shake the bad taste after it was over.