Oh man, do I love a good indie. Especially one that I know nothing about, because only then can film become the vehicle for artists to communicate a story to me without expectation and reputation mucking it up.

Such was the case with Cold in July when I happened upon it late one night while channel surfing. My husband and I had been fighting and I need a distraction. Wow, did I ever get one.

Now let me make myself clear–this is no indie masterpiece like, say, One False Move. Hardly. The plot has more holes than one of Kurt Cobain’s sweaters. While the theme is convoluted, it is also about as subtle as a Motley Crue guitar solo. And boy, oh boy, is it derivative. And it’s good, in an entertaining sort of way.

Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall of Dexter) is a sullen family man with a really bad haircut and a matching lime green, wood paneled station wagon that’s about as long as a trailer home.  It’s small town East Texas, 1989, so there’s that. He’s no redneck though and that’s part of the problem–the townsfolk, heck, even his own wife, think he’s a bit of a wuss. So when a terrified Richard blows a burglar’s guts all over the wall and divan of his middle class home people are impressed, until they find out the guy was unarmed. Then it’s par for the course.

Case closed, the sheriff tells Richard, and good riddance to bad rubbish. The burglar’s name was Freddie Russell and he had a record a mile long. Plus a man’s home is his castle; he has every right to defend it–and his family, of course.

But none of this matters to Freddie’s father Ben (the ever reliable Sam Shepard). He is a grizzled, bitter man in the last quarter of his life. Recently released from prison, he has nothing and no one. He has spent a lifetime thinking about the son he hasn’t seen since the boy was six years old. Now he will never see him again. It’s vendetta time.

Ben threatens the Dane family; he is especially interested in the little boy. He stalks and menaces, even breaks into their home and hides in the crawl space; then prowls around the house and spies on them while they sleep. The sheriff is powerless when it comes to defending the family. They are sitting ducks. We all know where this is going because we’ve seen it before (think Robert De Niro in Cape Fear). Then Ben gets thrown on some railroad tracks (literally) and the train switches lines (metaphorically…Ahem.)

Even so, we recognize landmarks when Richard and Ben become uneasy allies (think 48 hrs; Lethal Weapon). Here Ben’s old Army buddy, Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson) shows up to help sort things out. In addition to having a three first name moniker and a collection of satin cowboy shirts, Jim Bob also happens to be a private detective. That comes in handy when the threesome encounter some especially vile actors in–and producers of–snuff films. (Seriously, are there any other kind?)

Cold In July has a distinct story arc. So distinct that it’s beginning, middle and end denote three movies in one–all of them representing different styles–each one mimicking classic, even landmark cinema. This is hardly accidental. If Mickle seems heavy handed, it’s because he’s lifting weights for fun. Under this burden his film buckles and then careens. But it doesn’t derail.

The plot revolves around Richard, and Michael C. Hall does an admirable job of stabilizing the story line and fleshing out an unremarkable, henpecked man with a decent streak a mile wide. Initially it’s what is lacking in Richard’s life that motivates him toward adventure. In the end it’s what he has that compels him to do what he simply must. When Hall clinches his jaw and steels himself we believe he can do it.

If Michael C. Hall’s performance is the glue that holds Cold In July together, it is Sam Shepard who provides the heart. His Ben is a man of few words and a quiet voice. Even his accent is plausibly restrained which I especially appreciate. He resonates as a grieving absentee father, wrestling with the ghosts of what could have been and the guilt over what is. This character doesn’t shed tears easily so when he weeps we feel it, even if we can barely see it.

Don Johnson is passable as Jim Bob Luke. To be fair he’d have to be a great actor to over come all of Jim Bob’s cliches. He’s not. He’s, um…passable. He is hot, so there’s that.

The last act is all blood and gore. I won’t reference the most obvious influence; that would give too much away.  But I will share this: as the credits roll, 80s hair metal group White Lion’s pop/rock anthem Wait blasts away. It’s corny, cheesy excess. And, ahem…it’s good.