There exists a comfortable middle ground between the directors of ‘Hollywood’ movies and independent cinema. Relative low production costs and accessible technology have allowed filmmakers more freedom to develop their style and work with a broader range of talent; Jim Mickle is one such director who might be playing in the big leagues soon enough. A horror movie obsessive, Mickle (alongside writing partner Nic Damici– think John Leguizamo crossed with Joe Mantegna) is slowly turning the screws on pulp storytelling and southern crime drama. With a new TV show for the Sundance channel premiering this year, let’s have a look at his past work.
And to think I saw that on Mulberry Street
The delightfully unpolished Mulberry Street(2010) saw Mickle and Damici wear their influences on their sleeves. A dimly lit take on the ‘zombie-infection’ genre, Mickle’s micro-budget is stretched over story-lines that cover family drama, apocalyptic danger, and 70’s claustrophobia. It’s basic, fun and genuinely enjoyable. Similar in attitude to Brad Anderson’s ‘Vanishing on 7th street’, the movie was Mickle’s breakout after several years working as a grip on various well-funded but poorly directed ‘vanity projects’. Splattering violence and a couple of pretty decent set pieces put this in the ‘if only they had a budget’ column.
And then a budget is what Jim got. Kind of. Produced by Larry Fessenden (who had a cameo in both Mickle’s debut and ‘Vanishing on 7th Street – see what I did there?), 2010’s Stake Land gave Mickle a Vampire problem to deal with. It’s not crazy to think that Stake Land is what Mulberry Street could have been given more money, but after watching again it seems that the writing duo were keen to show a more savvy audience what they were capable of. This isn’t a Twilight rip-off or an Underworld clone, this is a people movie, a survival story. The apocalypse is upon us yet again, as is the father/child relationship dynamic seen in the Mulberry Street – though this movie doesn’t rely on schmaltz or self-deprecation. This is a young director with a job to do, his tone serious, his world coldly lit. Fessenden’s influence is all over this film, (even directing one of the ‘webisode’ prequels used to flesh out the backstory for the film’s release) but the mood and tone belong to Mickle.
You gonna eat that…?
The Sundance premiering We Are What We Are(2013) is the film that first made many of us aware of Jim Mickle. Seasoned by great performances from noted character actors Bill Sage and Michael Parks, this re-imagining of the Mexican film of the same name debuts a slower pace for the directors 3rd outing. Focusing on a family reeling from the death of the mother, the director avoids the temptation to ramp up the gore. Instead, each instance of violence hits like a train as we follow the story of these old-timey cannibals through the eyes of sisters Rose (Sin City’sJulie Garner) and Iris (The Master’s Ambyr Childers); the taboo dietary habits of the characters merely simmering through the films 105 mins. The cruelty at the heart of the family is at first suggested, then served straight up as father Frank wilfully keeps the family in line with their customs. Mickle tracks Rose and Iris’ ever growing concern with their family’s lifestyle and when Sage’s laconic patriarch explodes in self-righteous violence, the focus switches from determination to escape to determination to survive. From that point on, the movie becomes predictable, highlighted only by Park’s grieving father and the stomach churning dinner scenes. This is the first time Mickle’s direction steers away from the genre clichés, and its horror Jim, but not as we know it.
Revenge is a dish…
For 2014’s Cold in July, Mickle harks back to the 80s/early 90s source material (Joe Lansdale’s novel of the same name) with a loving eye. A revenge thriller with a twist, the story starts out with hints of Cape Fear’s dread and finishes with a dimly lit stakeout and cutting violence like The Coen’s Blood Simple. Sam Shepard and Don Johnson know the tough guy role in and out and play it well, but it’s Michael C Hall’s inexperienced Richard that steals the show. Arcing from timid Joe Bloggs to man of action, similar to Nicholas Cage’ in Red Rock West, Hall’s uncertain but relentless pursuit of justice mixes the revenge movie with a ‘guys on a mission’ motif. Johnson clearly has a ball playing flashy P.I Jim Bob, whilst Shepard grizzles his way through the movie as the climactic anti-hero. Co-written by Damici and Mickle, the film avoids overt lantern hanging and breaks rhythm just enough to keep audiences guessing. Mickle’s second re-imagining (rather than a remake), it’s a solid effort from a director settling into his aesthetic.
The Savage Season
Debuting in 2016, Mickles next project is another retelling of a Joe Lansdale novel. Hap & Leonard will show on the Sundance channel, and given the source material, we can expect a pulpy, southern crime drama. Bringing together James Purefoy (Rome) and Michael K Williams (The Wire) as the investigative duo, Mickle also recruits Bill Sage and Christina Hendricks to the cast. Joining other Sundance shows like The Red Road and Rectify, the Texas noir of Hap and Leonard will surely fit in well, and given the atmosphere Mickle so easily created in Cold in July, we could very well see a second season greenlit soon.