‘Cut Bank’ is a superficially kind-of good movie. The central hook is clever, the supporting cast of character actors is fantastic, and the rustic-eccentric aesthetic is loaded with atmosphere. If you were to see the movie playing silently on a TV in a bar, you’d wonder what it was and want to seek it out. The trouble is that there really isn’t all that much to it beyond its quirky and slick exterior.
This is a Frankenstein job of ideas and images ripped from other movies (mostly ones made by the Coen brothers) that never quite transcends its influences to become unique enough to stand on its own. The film is perfectly fine, but the way it constantly reminds viewers of better movies they could be watching only serves to make its hollow core all the more obvious.
Beautiful proto-movie stars Liam Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer play a pair of small town young folk trapped within the narrow walls of their rural community. Sure, they don’t look a thing like lost small town types, but try not to think about that too much. There’s a story to tell slathered in quirk. Hemsworth dreams up a ludicrous scheme to stage the murder of a local mailman (Bruce Dern) and “accidentally” capture it on video in order to claim a $100,000 reward offered by the Postal Service. It seems like a foolproof plan until Oliver Platt’s steak-loving UPS inspector shows up demanding to see a corpse and the local Sheriff (John Malkovich) isn’t quite sure what to do. As the awkward plan goes bad, a body count of actual murders starts piling up amongst the other townsfolk. This helps with Hemsworth’s elaborate fraud, but obviously is a bad thing in every other conceivable way. Cue dark comedy and small town daring do.
‘Sons of Anarchy’ writer Roberto Patino and ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’ director Adam Shakman are clearly big-time Coen fans and slather their movie with the Coens’ quirky influences. Every role is eccentric and played by a recognizable character actor. Every moment of violence feels shockingly unexpected yet is laced with acidic wit. Every shot has some sort of cockeyed sense of beauty. Every plot twist is laced with irony. There’s a lot to admire and yet the machine doesn’t quite work. The Coens might be highly calculating filmmakers, but at least their movies never feel forced. They know exactly what they want to do and execute their prescribed ideas beautifully. Shakman and Patino, on the other hand, are trying just a little too hard to seem quirky and cool. They deliver a movie that feels like posturing.
It certainly doesn’t help that they’re saddled with Hemsworth and Palmer in the lead roles. Neither of those actors is without talent. They just don’t look a thing like small town layabouts. They’re both clearly kids with a future in modeling and commercial acting, and can’t bring the level of listless melancholia that the story demands. As a result, the twisted tale feels false before the stylized twists even come into play. There’s no heart here, just calculated quirk.
That said, the movie certainly has some amusing jokes and oddball twists along the way that make for a pleasing ride. Much of it comes down to a brilliant supporting cast. If you need an elderly crank, Bruce Dern will give you the best elderly crank around. If you need a slightly younger crank, Billy Bob Thornton will do it with ease. Looking for an eccentric sheriff? Look no further than John Malkovich. Want an amusingly annoying suit to score some laughs in a role that should be an exposition machine? Oliver Platt has built a career of such roles. Pretty much all the supporting characters were assigned to the Number One choice at Central Casting, and that’s a recipe for success no matter how many weaknesses the script has. These actors are simply fun to watch.
Best of all might be the Coen-approved (via ‘A Serious Man’) Michael Stuhlbarg in an increasingly insane role that he commits to with energy and vigor. While the rest of the character actors on screen do their job with little fuss, Stuhlbarg acts his guts out and it’s a real shame that he did so for such a forgettable project.
“Forgettable” is the right world to sum up the failure of ‘Cut Bank’. It’s a movie with so many eccentric moments that should stick in the brain, yet it somehow ends up feeling oddly unmemorable by the time the credits roll. It’s not a bad movie by any means, and clearly the driving filmmakers behind the project were hoping to deliver something strong enough to pull them out of TV and into the moving pictures. Unfortunately, what they ultimately delivered falls short of those ambitions. It feels very average and should fade away without much fuss from audiences.