Well this was a weirdness. Made in 2014 and “released” only at various film festivals, Cut Bank missed theaters and went straight to DVD amid pretty crummy reviews. And while I agree that this was no masterwork, it was just quirky enough to keep me watching for its measly hour and 29 or so minutes.
The film starts out with a deliberate cliché. A young attractive couple—Dwayne (Liam Hemsworth, Thor’s brother) and Cassandra (Teresa Palmer, whom you all remember from Grudge 2)—are “trapped” in Cut Bank, Montana, advertised as the “coldest town in the U.S.” They both want to get far away, not only from the small town where everybody knows everybody, but also from both their fathers. Cassandra’s dad (Billy Bob Thornton) is marshal and just as cold as the town. Liam’s is an invalid, virtually catatonic, and completely dependent on his son for his survival. Desperation drips from these two like stink from a Crumb comic.
One day, while Dwayne is videotaping Cassandra in a vast wheat field, he witnesses, and captures on tape, a murder. Turns out the “victim” is the elderly and crusty postman Georgie Wits (Bruce Dern), and the “murderer” is a very tall, and mute, Native American named Match.
I’m not giving anything away by disclosing the name of the murderer, or the air quotes, because the trailer for the film gives it all away — including the fact that the murder is faked, and faked by Dwayne in order to collect a $100,000 reward for evidence of a murder of an employee of the U.S. Postal Service. (Why the reward is not for the conviction of the murderer is because, well, because the movie would have nowhere to go.)
So what we have is a Columbo episode: from the start we know who the bad guys are (Wits and Match are both accomplices with motives of their own). The dramatic question to be answered is who will put the pieces together and how.
Oh, and how many people will Derby Milton kill in order to retrieve his parcel? You see, Milton (Michael Stuhlberg, A Serious Man) is a slovenly and apparently mentally slow recluse everyone thought was dead. Yet he suddenly appears all around town trying to retrieve the parcel that was never delivered to his house when the “murdered” postman’s truck was disassembled by the “murderer” and the contents tossed in a storage facility.
What’s in that parcel that makes Milton willing to inflict all kinds of bodily harm on all kinds of people who refuse to help him find it? What price will Dwayne pay when his ridiculous scheme is uncovered? Will Sheriff Vogel prove the hero, or another victim?
I was quite entertained by Cut Bank, even as it all began to fall apart about two-thirds of the way in. The pace was brisk, the dialogue delivered some sharp lines, and there was enough quirk to keep me eager to find out which corner the script was going to turn next, even as I began to recognize a lot of the sign posts. There’s little visual flair, I admit; this isn’t Hitchcock or even David Fincher. (I almost said “or even the Coen Bros.,” whom Cut Bank is most liable to bring to mind. But in my humble opinion, they’re just illusionists who fake a style then show their hand lest you forget you’re watching “magic.” But I digress…)
The counterintuitive casting of John Malkovich as the pious sheriff who can’t bear to hear the Lord’s name taken in vain or stop rubbing a rabbit’s foot was a nice touch. Billy Bob Thornton was underutilized here. He’s played this character before, specifically in Monster’s Ball. Hemsworth and Palmer are a couple of blank slates, but Stuhlberg is sufficiently grotesque right up to the point where it turns out he’s merely a plant for PETA.
There’s a fine line between homage and clumsy imitation. The “hints” of the films that have influenced Cut Bank begin slowly to bleed through the script, becoming not so much echoes as pit stains.
Derby Milton is a combination of Norman Bates and Boo Radley. The ludicrous “explanation” for his reclusivity, macabre hobbies, and sudden fits of violence explains so much that it doesn’t explain anything at all. The character is just that—a fictional device. (Actually, he put me in mind of a much better film, Blue Ruin, about an ordinary man who finds himself capable of extraordinary violence in a quest for vengeance.)
By film’s end you realize this wasn’t so much Psycho or Blood Simple of even a weird variation on Friday the 13th as much as a paeon to small-town life, where murders are so rare they make the sheriff hurl, an inversion of the “deliberate cliché” mentioned up top. It’s an illustration, crudely drawn, of the second chances and tender mercies that can be doled out only in small towns where everybody knows your name, and owns a common guilt.