Film Review: Cut Bank (dir by Matt Shakman)


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The image at the top of this post is taken from the film Cut Bank and features Teresa Palmer and Liam Hemsworth.  It’s a striking picture, isn’t it?  If there’s anything positive that can be said about Cut Bank, it’s that it’s a visually striking film.  Some of the film’s images compare favorably with the work of the Coen Brothers in  No Country For Old Men and Fargo.

(Perhaps not surprisingly, the film’s director, Matt Shakman, previously directed two episodes of the Fargo tv series.)

Of course, it’s not just the film’s visual style that will remind you of the Coens.  The plot is full of Coen DNA as well and that’s a bit of a problem.  The thing that sets the Coen Brothers apart from other directors is that only they seem to understand how to best pull off their unique brand of ironic quirkiness.  It’s difficult to think of any other director who could have done A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, or any other Coen film.  It’s telling that whenever other directors have attempted to film a Coen Brothers script — whether it was Angelina Jolie with Unbroken or Steven Spielberg with Bridge of Spies — the resulting film has almost always been overwhelmingly earnest.  (If you try, you can imagine a Coen-directed version of Bridge of Spies, one with Josh Brolin in the Tom Hanks role, Steve Buscemi as Rudolph Abel, and maybe Bruce Campbell as a CIA agent.)  The Coen style is one that has inspired many a director but ultimately, it seems to be something that only the Coens themselves are truly capable of pulling off.

(Though Ridley Scott came close with the underrated The Counselor…)

Plotwise, Cut Bank has everything that you would normally expect to find in a Coen Brothers film.  For instance, it takes place in Cut Bank, Montana and, much as in Fargo and No Country For Old Men, a good deal of time is devoted to detailing the oddness of life in the middle of nowhere.  Also, much as in Fargo and No Country For Old Men, the entire film revolves around an overly complicated crime gone wrong.

Dwayne McLaren (Liam Hemsworth) has spent his entire life in the Montana town of Cut Bank and is looking for a way to get enough money to move out to California with his beauty pageant-obsessed girlfriend, Cassandra (Teresa Palmer).  Dwayne learns that the U.S. Postal Service will pay a reward to anyone who provides information about the death of a postal worker.  One day, while filming one of Cassandra’s pageant audition videos, Dwayne accidentally films both the shooting of mailman Georgie Wits (Bruce Dern) and the theft of his mail truck.

Wow, what luck!

Sheriff Vogel (John Malkovich) throws up as soon as he hears about the murder.  After all, he’s never had to investigate one before.  Town weirdo Derby Milton (Michael Stuhlbarg) is upset that the stolen mail truck contained a parcel that he was waiting for.  Meanwhile, Big Stan (Billy Bob Thornton), who happens to be both Cassandra’s father and Dwayne’s boss, seems to be suspicious about how Dwayne just happened to be in the field at the same time that Georgie was getting killed…

Dwayne’s efforts to collect his reward are stymied by the fact that postal inspector Joe Barrett (Oliver Platt) doesn’t want to hand over any money until Georgie’s body has been found.  Unfortunately, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to find Georgie’s body because Georgie is still alive!  That’s right — Georgie’s been working with Dwayne the whole time…

Meanwhile, it turns out that Derby is not someone you want to mess with.  In fact, he’s just as efficient a killing machine as Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men.  And Derby is determined to retrieve his parcel…

Cut Bank got an extremely limited release in April of this year and it didn’t get much attention.  To a certain extent, I can understand why.  It’s a film that has its moments but ultimately, it’s never as good as you want it to be.  The best thing about the film is that it features a lot of eccentric actors doing their thing.  Any film that allows Bruce Dern to interact with Michael Stuhlbarg deserves some credit.  Unfortunately, Dwayne and Cassandra are not particularly interesting characters and Hemsworth and Palmer give rather one-dimensional performances.  Since you don’t care about them, you don’t really care if Dwayne’s scheme is going to work out.  William H. Macy may have been a despicable loser in Fargo but you could still understand what led to him coming up with his phony plan and you felt a strange mix of sympathy and revulsion as everything spiraled out of his control.  The same can be said of Josh Brolin in No Country For Old Men.  Dwayne, however, just comes across like someone who came up with a needlessly complicated plan for no good reason.

In 2013, the script for Cut Bank was included as a part of the Black List, an annual list of the “best” unproduced scripts in Hollywood.  What’s odd is that, for all the hype that goes along with being listed, Black List scripts rarely seem to work as actual films.  Oh sure, there’s been a few exceptions.  American Hustle was on the Black List, for instance.  But a typical Black List film usually turns out to be something more along the lines of The Beaver or Broken City.  Watching Cut Bank, I could see why the script generated excitement.  The story is full of twists and all of the characters are odd enough that I’m sure readers had a lot of fun imagining which beloved character actor could fill each role.  Unfortunately — as so often happens with Black List films — the direction does not live up to the writing.  Yes, the plot is twisty and there’s a lot of odd moments but the film never escapes the long shadow of the films that influenced it.

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