It goes without saying the Roberto Patino and Matt Shankman, the respective writer and director of Cut Bank, are big time Coen Brother fans. Apart from the fact that Shankman directed a couple episodes of the Fargo TV series, the duo have now constructed a feature length homage to the small town noir genre that those obscenely talented filmmaking siblings created in Blood Simple and Fargo. Shankman and Patino’s movie is dripping with the melancholic comedy, sudden bursts of violence, and excessive eccentricity of their obvious influence. The trouble is that the duo never managed to make a movie that felt like more than the sum of their influences. Cut Bank plays like a photocopy of two contemporary classics rather than anything resembling a new movie. Just like a photocopy, the quality was diminished somewhere along the way.
Liam “don’t call me Chris” Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer star as the two most impossibly beautiful small town layabouts in the history of film. They’re desperate to get out of their tiny little town and all of the failure n’ sadness therein. Hemsworth even hatches a plan to pull it off by “accidentally” filming a murder and then scamming the post office for cash (don’t ask). Oliver Platt shows up as a post representative demanding to see a body (which is tricky given the quotation marks used in the previous sentence) and soon he’s buddy-ed up with a bitter local sheriff investigating the crime played by John Malkovich. That leads to a series of confrontations with local eccentrics like a cranky Bruce Dern, a slightly less cranky Billy Bob Thornton, and a deeply disturbed Michael Stuhlbarg in coke bottle glasses. As the miss-matched pair investigate that phony baloney murder, a series of actual murders start piling up, leading to all sorts of paranoia and queasy laughs until an obvious twist reveals itself.
The biggest problem with Cut Bank is that it’s simply far too glossy of a production to feel like the product of actual backwater life. Patino and Shankman’s background in television is all too obvious throughout. They’re movie desperately tries to feel unconventionally quirky, but ultimately follows strict textbook screenwriting conventions and serves up the type of shiny HD visuals that can only come from a rushed production schedule. While the cast of two up n’ coming pretty young things and a collection of well known character actors undoubtedly helped raise money for the production and secure a theatrical release, it completely betrays the brand of lost small town naturalism that is supposed to be the movie’s strength. There’s not a single second in Cut Bank that feels like fleeting observations of a strange little town lost to the world. It’s always clear that we’re in genre movie territory and as a result the movie plays out at arms length. It’s never close to real. It’s just a movie and not a particularly good one either.
The pleasures that the movie does serve up are limited entirely to the contributions of the cast. Not from the leads of course. Hemsworth’s handsome brooding and Palmer’s uncomfortable stabs at awkward comedy must be endured rather than enjoyed. Nope, it’s only the dependable faces that you’ve seen in thousands of other movies that offer any charm. John Malkovich ditches most of his usual ticks to deliver one of his few hangdog performances. Bruce Dern and Billy Bob Thornton engage in a war over who can play the crankiest hick and while Thornton puts up one hell of a fight, Dern is by far the most fun to watch growling out his bitter lines. Platt takes a role that should be little more than an exposition machine and transforms it into easily the biggest laugh factory on screen (which would be a pleasant surprise were it not for the fact that he’s essentially built an entire career off of those types of roles/performances). Best of all is Michael Stuhlbarg, a Coen Bros. veteran given a role that could have easily been a cartoon crazy person that he invests with so much genuine tragedy and pathos that he somehow manages to tear your guts out despite being an obvious kook. It’s almost worth investing time in the whole struggling cinematic endeavor just to see Stuhlbarg and co. work their magic, but only almost.
Cut Bank is far from an abject failure. There are simply too many good isolated performances, scenes, and images to completely write it off. However, it’s hard to tell whether or not the enjoyment that comes from the movie is a result of anything that the filmmakers achieved or just a result of certain recognizable faces and Coen Brothers tropes reminding viewers of far better movies that they enjoyed in the past. That’s the big trap of creating a feature-length homage. Do the job right and you’ll deliver a movie worthy of your heroes. Get it wrong and your movie will seem extra awful because of all the positive memories that you’ll spoil for knowing viewers. Cut Bank falls right smack in the middle of both extremes and despite the high highs and low lows, it’s ultimately just another mediocre middlebrow movie slowly marching towards Netflix obscurity.