'Cut Bank': LAFF Review

A sometimes goofy crime yarn gets humdrum treatment.

The film is a copycat, self-consciously comedic violent noir that marks the big screen debut of director Matt Shakman ("It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia") and writer Robert Patino ("Sons of Anarchy"), and stars Liam Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer.

Cut Bank is the sort of copycat, self-consciously comedic violent noir of which there were far too many at the Sundance Film Festival in the years after the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino strode onto the scene. Clever enough to provoke a few abrupt laughs along the way, this big screen debut for two television stalwarts, director Matt Shakman (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and writer Robert Patino (Sons of Anarchy, Prime Suspect), is sabotaged by some frightfully on-the-nose expository dialogue and an adamantly prosaic visual style.

Still, the solid cast will probably earn this a distributor for limited theatrical release. The yarn is set (but was not filmed) in the tiny (pop. 3,100) Montana town that proudly announces itself as the "coldest spot in the nation," although, as the story is set during the summer, this has no bearing whatever on the plot. An embarrassingly informational initial scene has handsome dumb cluck Dwayne (Liam Hemsworth) telling his gullible but fetching girlfriend Cassandra (Teresa Palmer) something she scarcely needs to hear again, that he wanted whisk her to L.A. three years ago but for now he’s stuck caring for his sick old dad.

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As if in preparation for imagined film careers, Dwayne takes his young lovely out to a floral field to take some lyrical video footage of her, only to also capture, in the background, a figure emerge to fire to two shots at another man. The victim is the town's goofy old postman, Georgie Wits (Bruce Dern), who has heretofore been seen spending his lunch hour in his mail truck ogling nubile cheerleaders through binoculars.

As there’s a $100,000 reward in place for anyone providing evidence of the killing of a federal employee, Dwayne expectantly gives his videotape to local sheriff Vogel (John Malkovich), who’s taken aback by the advent of the town’s very first murder. However, there’s no body, nor has the day’s mail been delivered, which is a matter of extreme concern to taxidermist Derby Milton (Michael Stuhlbarg), an ultra-weirdo with bottle-bottom glasses who’s expecting a very important parcel.

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Short of spilling any spoilers, which would be numerous, it’s safe to say that the lack of a corpse is simply the first of many details that suggest that things are not as straightforward as they might have seemed at first; it almost goes without saying that the body count does not end with one. Writer Patino no doubt had fun lining up all his ducks, the better to savor twisting their necks and plucking their feathers, and there are minor pleasures to be taken watching pros like Dern, Stuhlbarg, Malkovich and Oliver Platt, playing a visiting D.C. official, employ delayed reactions and well-practiced stares to milk maximum value out of the script’s surprise turns.

But thick-headed Dwayne and bubbly Cassandra, who dreams of being crowned Miss Cut Bank before leaving for Hollywood stardom, are dull characters, as is the latter’s stern father (Billy Bob Thornton).

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Even more deleterious, however, is the by-the-numbers direction; especially with this sort of story, which has been done a thousand times before, stylistic flair and visual inventiveness are de rigueur, the only justification, in fact, for further exploits in this much-traversed field. Shakman’s handling of it is strictly presentational, creating no special mood, atmosphere or character.

Some very good talent behind and before the camera has been put to quite ordinary use here.

Cast: Liam Hemsworth, Teresa Palmer, Billy Bob Thornton, Bruce Dern, Michael Stuhlbarg, Oliver Platt, John Malkovich

Director: Matt Shakman

Screenwriter: Richard Patino

Producers: Laura Rister, Ed Zwick, Mickey Barold, Mark Manuel, Ted O’Neal, Dan Cohen

Executive producers: Brad Ferguson, Corinne L. Ferguson,  Matthew Therell, Vinny Pilegge, Larry Dorr

Director of photography: Ben Richardson

Production designer: Laura Fox

Costume designer: Narda McCarroll

Editor: Craig Wood

No rating, 93 minutes