Watching an estimable quintet of character actors do their thing is the chief pleasure of “Cut Bank,” a largely routine thriller dressed up as a quirky small-town morality play. The feature helming debut of Matt Shakman, a former child actor turned prolific director of episodic television, does well by all but the youngest members of its core cast — a creative stumble that unfortunately leaves a gaping hole where the film’s heart should be. Quality supporting performances, including another excellent turn from Bruce Dern, aren’t enough to guarantee theatrical play after a Los Angeles Film Festival premiere, but should help boost the pic’s profile wherever it lands.
Disaffected young dude Dwayne (Liam Hemsworth) longs to leave the sleepy town of Cut Bank, Mont., notable only as the “coldest spot in the nation,” for sunnier surroundings. Employed as a mechanic by the no-nonsense father (Billy Bob Thornton) of his pretty pageant-queen-wannabe g.f., Cassandra (Teresa Palmer), Dwayne doesn’t appear to have either the brains or the means to achieve his California dreams —at least, until his attempt at shooting a homemade tourism video with Cassandra results in his accidentally capturing the shocking murder of elderly local mailman Georgie Wits (Dern) on film.
Apparently, anyone who delivers evidence of the killing of a postal employee will receive a $100,000 reward. Squeamish Sheriff Vogel (John Malkovich), thoroughly unprepared for the town’s first such violent crime, takes the video at face value and vouches for Dwayne with D.C. postal inspector Joe Barrett (Oliver Platt), who still needs to see Georgie’s corpse before any money changes hands. Of course, there’s a grander scheme at work here. It’s not long before Dwayne is revealed to be a lot less innocent than he appears, and Georgie turns out to be a lot less defunct than previously thought.
What neither of these small-time scammers count on is attracting the interest of Derby Milton (Michael Stuhlbarg, all but unrecognizable behind comically thick eyeglass lenses and tight baseball cap), a creepy recluse and taxidermy enthusiast who emerges from self-imposed exile to track down a parcel that went missing along with the rest of Georgie’s undelivered mail. It’s a running joke that everyone in Cut Bank assumes Derby was dead, but he proves to be the most lethal character of all.
While Shakman’s imposing smallscreen resume includes several top-tier dramas (“Mad Men,” “The Good Wife,” “Six Feet Under”), his most salient credit is the FX miniseries “Fargo.” It’s another small-town crime story populated by eccentric characters (not to mention the involvement of both Thornton and Platt, and an obvious debt to the Coen brothers), but “Cut Bank” pales in comparison to that series’ effortless balance of unnerving darkness, black comedy and bracing compassion.
There’s an unappealing undercurrent of wiseass cynicism and condescension to Midwestern living coursing throughout “Cut Bank,” and a distinct lack of local flavor. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to discern if the missteps here were inherent in Roberto Patino’s script (which made the 2009 Black List) or arise from less-than-ideal execution of the material. For one, budget mandated the production shoot in Alberta rather than in the actual Montana town, a dubious decision when the location is such a vital character.
While Dwayne is meant to be the central figure of the film — a boy finding both his manhood and his morality under extreme circumstances — Hemsworth’s bland performance fades into the background of too many scenes. (One wonders how original lead Armie Hammer, who was attached but departed prior to production along with Ben Kingsley and Michael Sheen, might have fared instead.) Palmer similarly struggles with a poorly drawn femme role; in a film where nearly every character is revealed to be more than they first appear, the perpetually vapid Cassandra is notable as the most one-note presence, ultimately reduced to nothing more than a damsel in distress.
Coming off a career-rejuvenating performance in “Nebraska,” Dern steals the show in a flashy part that represents a clever inversion of the upright old-timer he played in Alexander Payne’s picture. Georgie’s limitless charm masks a wily snake who spends his lunch breaks peeping on high-school cheerleaders and harbors a ruthless sense of self-protection. His hilarious expletive-filled showdown with Stuhlbarg’s stuttering psycho is the pic’s standout sequence, and one of several in which Shakman wisely indulges the enjoyable sight of two strong actors going tete-a-tete. Malkovich doesn’t quite convince as a lovelorn and borderline inept officer of the law, but he’s so good in his scenes opposite an understated Thornton and characteristically brash Platt that it doesn’t really matter.
On a technical level, “Cut Bank” registers as something like an imitation of a ’90s thriller imitating a ’70s thriller, down to James Newton Howard’s surprisingly generic score. It was a welcome if inevitable choice to use Hank Williams, Jr.’s song “Cut Bank, Montana” over the closing credits, though it’s too bad the film doesn’t pack the same punch as the tune.