Movies · TV

‘Cold in July,’ ‘Hap and Leonard,’ and East Texas Bloodbaths

By  · Published on March 8th, 2017

How Texas author Joe Lansdale found his cinematic saviors in Jim Mickle and Nick Damici.

Sometimes a filmmaker and an author just click. Back in 1980, a young filmmaker named Frank Darabont approached author Stephen King and asked if he could obtain the rights to adopt King’s short story The Woman in the Room into a short film. In a 1997 interview with Creative Screenwriting, Darabont admitted that it was his interest in King’s short stories that opened the door to their multiple collaborations. “Steve’s always been a little intrigued by the notion that, as a director, I tend to gravitate toward his lesser-known works,” Darabont said in the interview. It’s an approach that has served both author and filmmaker well in movies like The Mist, The Green Mile, and The Shawshank Redemption.

Much like King, Texas author Joe Lansdale has made a reputation for himself among genre fans as a purveyor of witty dialogue, diabolical characters, and geographic specificity. And while Lansdale would wait more than twenty years for a big-screen adaptation of one of his stories, thanks to two dedicated filmmakers-slash-fans, Lansdale’s work has become a hot ticket for both film and television. Director Jim Mickle and actor/co-writer Nick Damici first hit it off while working together on a 2001 NYU student film, collaborating on a series of low-budget horror films (Mulberry Street, Stake Land) in the last decade. And in the last few years, they’ve become experts in all things Lansdale by bringing the author’s most beloved works to the screen with 2014’s Cold in July and the ongoing Sundance television series Hap and Leonard.

In interviews, Damici describes Mickle as the “cinematic guy” to his own literary background, bringing out the best in each and allowing them to “appeal to a much broader audience” than they would individually. Their complimentary production styles and shared appreciation for genre fiction made them to the perfect team to tackle Lansdale’s complicated and slippery narratives. “I knew about Lansdale through Bubba Ho-Tep,” Mickle told /Film in 2016, “So I tracked down a lot of Joe’s stuff, one of the first of which was I think Two-Bear Mambo, the third book in the Hap and Leonard series.” Despite this, Mickle would choose a different Lansdale novel to kick off their relationship. Cold in July, Lansdale’s twisted take on the classic revenge formula, would emerge as one of the best-reviewed films of the year, bringing home a handful of festival honors that included a Grand Jury Prize nomination at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Hap and Leonard would follow soon after.

Lansdale’s vision of eighties East Texas – as seen through the eyes of Mickle and Damici, at any rate – consists of heat, poverty, and more heat layered on top. James Purefoy’s Hap and Michael K. Williams’s Leonard begin their series as a day laborers in a nearby rose farm before being let go in favor of migrant laborers; while the show often depicts stacks of bills in the background, nobody ever tries to collect on them, suggesting that poverty was simply a way of life for people in this time and place. Michael C. Hall’s Dane owns his own picture framing shop and even has money enough to secure the house after the initial break-in, but his financial instability is a tool he uses to kick off the film’s final gun battle. Perhaps owing to this stress, all three characters are often seen in various states of sweat, faces often bloated and glistening with the heat.

While the two projects could not be more different in tone – Cold in July is a solemn film that pokes around in the darkest corners of parenthood, while Hap and Leonard aims for (and achieves) a pulpy sense of bravado unmatched by most television – they each also offer a fractured take on the American dream. Each of the main characters live in the shadow of lost wars and corporate America. As a conscientious objector, Hap spent the majority of the Vietnam War locked inside a county prison, while Leonard enlisted and watched men die for their country. Similarly, Sam Shepard’s Russel and Don Johnson’s Jim Bob stand on opposite sides of the law but share the bonds of service from the Korean War. As such, their very existence acts as something of an anachronism, an examination of masculinity that got lost somewhere between the politics of the ’70s and the advent of corporate America.

And speaking of masculinity: despite the celebration of gun culture at the heart of both Cold in July and Hap and Leonard, both adaptations sidestep generic clichés by featuring a protagonist who is very uneasy with a weapon in his hand. Leonard describes Hap as a crack shot on multiple occasions, even going so far as to berate him for not shooting alligators in the head the first time they surface. Despite this, Hap refuses to use a gun to defend himself, choosing not to pull the trigger in a key showdown with Jimmi Simpson’s deranged hitman. Meanwhile, Cold in July’s Dane shoots a home invader to death in the film’s earliest moments, only to spend much of the film’s first half struggling to overcome his shock and shame at having ended another person’s life. Dane’s arc – from reluctant combatant to determined soldier – would feel more at home in a war film than a southern thriller.

All told, the work of Lansdale, Mickle, and Damici serves as the high point of the modern Texas crime thriller. While movies like Hell or High Water have breathed new life into the modern Western, Mickle and Damici’s work might only be matched by Darabont’s films in terms of their thoughtful adaptation of tricky source material. Mickle has described Lansdale’s novels as possessing “some of that Lynchian, twisted Americana vibe, but distinctly Texan,” as well as pointing out the way his books draw on multiple genres to tell their stories. Like the work of Stephen King, Joe Lansdale’s novels seem like a disaster in the hands of someone unable to understand the unique worlds the author has created. And like the films of Stephen King, Lansdale’s adaptations demonstrate an unparalleled grasp of an author’s tone.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)