After helming episodes of some of television’s most popular series, longtime “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” director Matt Shakman makes his feature debut with “Cut Bank,” a crime thriller starring Liam Hemsworth, Teresa Palmer, John Malkovich, Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Dern.
Revolving around a murder plot gone awry in the deceptively idyllic town of Cut Bank, Montana, Roberto Patino’s (“Sons of Anarchy”) script draws inevitable comparisons to “Fargo,” which is fitting considering Shakman also directed the final two episodes of that film’s sensational spinoff series. However, director and plot similarities aside, the Coen Brothers comparisons do “Cut Bank” no favors, as it never comes close to achieving the same levels of intrigue, tonal assurance or hilarity of that 90’s classic. With a half-baked storyline populated by stereotypical small town characters, including a thinly drawn protagonist that registers as unsympathetic, “Cut Bank” is too quirky to take seriously and too grisly to find funny.
“Cut Bank” follows young lovers Dwayne (Liam Hemsworth) and Cassandra (Teresa Palmer) as they dream of a better life beyond the city limits. Unfortunately, limited resources and a dying father to look after have kept Dwayne stuck in Cut Bank fixing cars at Cassandra’s father’s (Billy Bob Thornton) body shop. But when Dwayne captures what appears to be the murder of a local mailman (Bruce Dern) on camera, the incriminating footage places him on the receiving end of a $100,000 reward.
While the local sheriff (John Malkovich) investigates Cut Bank’s first ever murder, we learn that Dwayne’s coincidental camerawork was all part of an elaborate plan between himself, his mute coworker (David Burke) and the still-living mailman to cash in on the reward. As one might expect from such a sloppy scheme, unforeseen setbacks arise, the most problematic of which goes by the name Derby Milton (Michael Stuhlbarg). A creepy hermit with sociopathic tendencies, Derby thickens the plot when he starts investigating why his long-awaited package never arrived in the mail. Murder, mayhem and a local beauty pageant ensue.
Although Shakman has displayed his cinematic talents while directing such acclaimed single-camera shows as “Mad Men” and the aforementioned “Fargo,” the writing quality of those endeavors clearly aided him in yielding more memorable results. Despite Ben Richardson’s eye-pleasing cinematography and James Newton Howard’s agreeably offbeat score, the aesthetic pleasures can’t make up for the screenplay’s shortcomings. Aside from the one-note characters and derivative storyline, Patino’s script shows its cards far too early, leaving us with nothing to do but watch a simpleminded sheriff piece together what we already know while a creepster goes postal.
“Cut Bank” is marginally elevated by the star-studded cast assembled by Shakman, though not enough to compensate for the film’s weaknesses. Technically an ensemble piece, but centered on the young lovers played by Liam Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer, neither character has the depth or emotional accessibility to keep audiences engaged. And while the same can be said for the one-note secondary characters, at least those roles are filled by colorful veteran actors like Bruce Dern, Oliver Platt and Michael Stuhlbarg. As for Billy Bob Thornton and John Malkovich, they’re saddled with humorless roles that merely service the plot.
By Lucas Mirabella
Rated R for violence and language
Running Time: 93 minutes