The new film Cold in July displays all the hallmarks of a “country noir,” a subgenre perhaps most famously embodied by Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1984 classic Blood Simple.
The setting is a dusty, rural town in East Texas, where the police all appear to be crooked. The twisting plot follows a decent man, played by the Dexter star Michael C. Hall, who stumbles into a crime ring involving drugs, kidnapping and murder. Even after the bad guys are vanquished, a stinging sense of unease and despair lingers—to borrow the title of another country noir, this is indeed no country for old men.
Cold in July, which was directed and co-written by Jim Mickle (We Are What We Are) and opens in limited release on Friday, is one of two such films based in Texas that is attracting attention. The other, We Gotta Get Out of This Place by Zeke and Simon Hawkins, premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and is expected to reach theaters in September. That film follows three teenagers who find themselves in trouble after one steals $20,000 from the owner of a Texas cotton mill.
What is striking is not just that the films reinvigorate country noir, which has not seen much action since its heyday in the early nineties heyday, it is also that the directors are not from Texas. Mickle grew up in Pennsylvania and the Hawkins brothers in Darien, Connecticut.
Which invites a question: Does it take an outsider’s perspective to truly capture the dark side of Texas?
“In film school, there was always this conversation: ‘Can you make a movie from the point of view of anyone that’s other than yourself?’” Zeke Hawkins said.
Added Simon Hawkins: “I think that’s something that really excited us about the project—the chance to go somewhere new and different, and sort of see stuff for the first time.”
This cross-cultural hybridization is perhaps fitting, considering that the roots of country noir can be traced to Hollywood film noirs of the forties, and to the authors Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner. R. Barton Palmer, a literature and film professor at Clemson University, said one reason Blood Simple proved especially resonant was that it was among the first American independent films to knowingly use classic noir conventions in a modern setting. The movie was filmed by the Coen brothers, who are also not from Texas.
“So it’s both an artistic thing, a way for the directors to show that they are educated in the high-cultural forms of filmmaking, and at the same time tell a popular story that will resonate with audiences,” Dr. Palmer said.
Mickle and the Hawkins brothers, however, were working from Texan-generated source material. Cold in July is based on a 1989 novel by Joe R. Lansdale, a writer from Nacogdoches whose works frequently take place in East Texas. (Mickle originally hoped to shoot the film in East Texas or Shreveport, but budget considerations ultimately forced him to settle on New York.)
In the case of We Gotta Get Out of This Place, the producers Justin Duprie (who grew up in Taft, Texas) and Brian Udovich commissioned the screenplay from the Texas-born writer Dutch Southern.
But out-of-state directors lend the films a style and a self-awareness that might escape homegrown directors. Mickle said he was first attracted to Lansdale’s novel precisely because it reminded him of films like Blood Simple and Red Rock West.
“That was the era of movies I grew up with,” he said. “There’s a part to me that wanted to pay homage to the Southern thriller, using these cowboy motifs and noir motifs and revenge thriller motifs, but whipping them up in a new way.”
(Mickle has also agreed to bring Lansdale’s “Hap and Leonard” detective series to television.)
For We Gotta Get Out of This Place, the Hawkins brothers said that as non-Texans they were intent on letting the locations, Taft and nearby Portland, dictate the look of the film, instead of imposing their own ideas about what small-town Texas should look like.
“We said we were going to go down there and work with what we have,” Zeke Hawkins said. “The colors that popped at us were the rich dark soil, the sky being blue, and so many of the barns painted turquoise. That became our color palette for the film.”
As to whether a full-blown country noir renaissance might be underway, the jury remains out. Films like the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men in 2007 and Debra Granik’s Ozarks-set Winter’s Bone in 2010 seem to have reminded audiences and other filmmakers of the sinister pleasures of watching Southerners behave badly.
Palmer, however, regards these films as exceptions. “I think there are still the occasional film like Eve’s Bayou, that resurrects noir Gothic-southern Gothic, but I don’t think it’s a deeply resonant strain of the genre,” he said.
Yet, as Zeke Hawkins noted, regardless of the popularity of such films, even if the popularity of such films rises and falls over time,certain elements of Texas’ unforgiving nature are immutable.
“I think there’s a sense that when you’re out in the country in Texas, you are on your own,” he said. “We grew up in the suburbs, where there’s a feeling that the cops are everywhere and you call them if you’re in trouble. But in Texas you’re responsible for your own safety and well-being.”