The small town crime drama has been in the American cinema landscape for decades, but the modern one owes a great deal to the Coen Bros whose film Fargo in 1996, and later their Best Picture-winning No Country for Old Men. Even close to 20 years on, Fargo is still the high-water mark for this kind of wholesome-on-the-outside-dark-and-violent-on-the-inside crime movie, with a bit of comedy and a bit of effed-uppedness thrown in. You can’t fault a writer or director for wanting to emulate such a brilliantly-formed script and production. You can, however, fault them for hewing so close to it all it does is remind you that you aren’t watching the other movie. This is the case with the film Cut Bank, a movie which boasts an impressive cast but a Fargo-lite story.
Written by Roberto Patino and directed by Matt Shakman, Cut Bank tells the story of the very small and insular town of Cut Bank, Montana, a spot that proudly claims to be the coldest in the nation (it’s very close to Canada). This, however, is one of the warmest summers ever, because irony is fun. It’s a town where everybody knows everybody, and the one who sees them the most is the town’s mailman (Bruce Dern), who is outwardly friendly but inwardly quite bitter. Speaking of bitter, former high school football star Dwayne McLaren (Liam Hemsworth), now working for the father (Billy Bob Thornton) of his perky slightly ditzy girlfriend (Teresa Palmer) and trying to take care of his invalid father. Needless to say, he wants to find a way out.
One day, while taping his girlfriend out in a field, he happens to capture the image of the mailman being murdered by a masked man who then takes the body and the mail truck away. After sharing the footage with Thornton and the town’s stoic sheriff (John Malkovich), it seems like Dwayne is owed some money from the US government, from an obscure guideline, and it could let him leave town in style. However, everyone’s been deceived and the situation is a lot murkier than we in the audience could have imagined. Making things worse is the town recluse, whom everyone thinks is dead (Michael Stuhlbarg) has been patiently waiting for his parcel and when it doesn’t arrive, he begins a straightline warpath to retrieve it.
On paper, this is a movie I should have loved, and for awhile it looked like it might go that way. As with most festival screenings, I purposely know as little as possible about the movie going in, and the sudden “departure” of Dern’s character certainly made me sit up and take notice. For awhile it follows the typical thriller format with the outside threat/intrigue of Stuhlbarg’s strange and surprisingly violent yokel character. By the end, though, it falls victim of the “Well, how do we wrap up something like this?” problem that afflicts a lot of movies, especially the indier ones. It’s not necessarily a predictable ending, but it’s sort of one that they have to go a long way to reach logically.
The other strange thing about this film is the inconsistent tone. Much has been made about the blending of genres in Cut Bank with dark comedy and almost horror teaming up with quirk and drama, but to me it never really fit together very well. Each scene feels like it’s part of a different take on the movie and not the same movie with different tones per scene. And, more problematic, all of the actors seem to only be in one of the respective types of movies and never cross over into another. Hemsworth is in a completely different movie than everybody else. He’s playing high drama from beginning to end, never getting in on the weirder humor of the piece. He never plays panic, either, he just plays tortured hometown hero, which is very jarring considering he’s the ostensible lead of the movie.
Cut Bank is an entertaining enough movie with a good cast who mostly perform well. It just isn’t the groundbreaking genre-buster its makers apparently think it is. It’s lesser Coen Bros, which is fine. It just had the potential to be a lot more.