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‘Cold in July’: Tightly wound thriller truly keeps you guessing

“Cold July” is about parolee (Sam Shepard from left) family man (Michael C. Hall) detective (DJohnson) | IFC FILMS

“Cold in July” is about a parolee (Sam Shepard, from left), a family man (Michael C. Hall) and a detective (Don Johnson) | IFC FILMS

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‘COLD IN JULY’ ★★★1⁄2

Richard Dane Michael C. Hall

Jim Bob Don Johnson

Ben Russell Sam Shepard

IFC Films presents a film directed by Jim Mickle and written by Mickle and Nick Damici. Running time: 109 minutes. Rated R (for disturbing bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity). Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre and available now on demand.

Updated: July 1, 2014 6:10AM

The tightly wound and often surprising “Cold in July” is packaged as a southern-fried revenge thriller, but you’re just as likely to think you’re watching a horror movie for the first half-hour or so.

At which point it takes the first of two hairpin plot twists that send it in entirely different directions — all of them thoroughly satisfying.

Based on a story by Texas cult novelist Joe R. Lansdale, “Cold” is ominous from the first frame, beginning with a home invasion accompanied by a pulsing synthesizer score of the sort John Carpenter used to write for his ’80s thrillers (including “Halloween”). Mild-mannered, small-town Texas family man Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall of Showtime’s “Dexter”) hears a noise at 3 a.m., shakily loads a gun and kills a burglar in his living room, mostly out of sheer terror.

A detective (co-writer Nick Damici) tells Richard, who’s distraught about the shooting, that the man was a known felon and advises him not to worry about it. But the lowlife did have a daddy, an ex-con named Ben Russell, who’s just been released on parole. And it’s clear that the vengeful Ben, when he shows up the next day in the form of a grim, quietly threatening Sam Shepard, is someone worth worrying about. Especially since director Jim Mickle cranks up the “Cape Fear”-like scenario by giving Ben an almost supernatural presence, having him appear out of nowhere in a crack of lighting and the like.

There’s a lot to admire in “Cold in July,” but its chief virtue is unpredictability. Most movies these days sleepwalk through their formulaic paces, but you’ll never guess where this one is going based on the way it begins. It would be a shame to risk spoiling that by revealing too much about the plot. Suffice it to say that the local police aren’t entirely to be trusted and that Richard’s involvement with Ben — and a good-ol’-boy detective played by Don Johnson — gets into some dark, strange and emotionally wrenching places. The result: a transformative experience for our nervous hero.

“Cold in July” also has unusual depth. Mickle, who also made last year’s harrowing cannibal family drama “We Are What We Are” and 2010’s post-apocalyptic vampire saga “Stake Land,” is adept at making films that live up to genre expectations while drawing on substantial subtexts. Meaning you can have your thrills and ponder them too. And there’s a lot to ponder in “Cold in July” with its implications about manhood and morality and its straight-out-of-the-Old Testament notions of justice.

A film can be galvanizing and emotionally resonant without making sense, strictly speaking, and “Cold in July” does have a few plausibility issues. But who cares when it’s crafted so masterfully, including memorable performances by all three leads. As Jim Bob, Johnson more than lives up to the flamboyance of the flaming red Cadillac convertible his character drives (complete with gigantic Texas steer horns on the front grille).

What can you say about a guy who says, “All right boys, it’s Howdy Doody time” before walking into a gunfight? Except check him out for sure.

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