Stumbling upon $8 million dollars in stolen currency on a wilderness trip doesn’t turn out so well for three young friends — surprise! — in “Blood Money.” It’s not particularly plausible placing bratty 20-year-olds in classic noirish circumstances of greed and betrayal, with John Cusack more weird than menacing as the criminal they’ve unwittingly tangled with. But this open-air thriller is decently crafted by director Lucky McKee (whose prior films have landed closer to horror terrain), and it eventually summons up enough seriocomic neo-noir perversity to comprise a fun, semi-guilt-free ride. Saban Films is opening the movie on 10 screens nationwide Oct. 13, simultaneously with Liongate’s VOD release.
After a first year of college, Lynn (Willa Fitzgerald), Jeff (Jacob Artist) and Victor (Ellar Coltrane) reunite for an annual rafting/camping trip. Actually, not everyone got some higher education —while track star Lynn won an athletic scholarship, and brash, brawny Jeff’s wealthy family footed his tuition bill, Victor labored for minimum wage in the small town where they’ve known each other since childhood. Sensitive Vic also has lingering issues around his terminated high school romance with Lynn. These are exacerbated when it turns out his ex-girlfriend and his best friend have since become an item.
Meanwhile, white-collar embezzler Miller (Cusack) is fleeing authorities via the small plane he abandons to crash in the forest as he parachutes down with four heavy duffel bags of loot. He lands in one place, they in another — on a riverbank, where Lynn happens to find them on her morning run after a night of drunken three-way arguments. As in noirs of yore, this hitherto ordinary all-American lass immediately develops blinding, mercenary dollar signs in her eyes upon glimpsing a potential major personal gain, and is soon willing to sacrifice anyone in her path.
This sort of thing worked better when it was played by the likes of Lizbeth Scott or Gloria Grahame, who might’ve been young themselves at the time but were already palpably adults capable of embodying pulp-fiction Machiavellian deceit. As written and played here, Lynn is a tantrum-prone juvenile princess not greatly assisted by two male besties who aren’t so mature either, and who apparently never glimpsed her femme fatale potential despite lifelong alliance. For a while, “Blood Money” is like watching adenoidal tweens re-enact “Double Indemnity”; it’s fun, but pretty silly.
Then there’s Cusack, inexplicably lurking about in black ninja pajamas (or as Vic puts it, “looking like a Metallica roadie”), as if that’s going to somehow blend in with the sylvan settings. The actor, who himself once seemed inseparable from teen roles, has been hit-and-miss in finding appropriate vehicles in recent years. He’s gone darker before to good effect: he was startling as the villain in Lee Daniels’ nutty “The Paperboy.” Here, however, he’s closer to the wiseguy persona of his formative screen years, which simply distracts from what seems to be a straightforward thriller plot. Yet while Miller never becomes a more organic character than the actor’s riff, he does grow more congruous with the general tenor.
A chronic knee injury, river rapids, an ill-starred park ranger (Ned Bellamy), claustrophobia and a disused industrial tunnel all factor into the later progress, which grows more blackly comedic after the midpoint as the action escalates. This is good, because it means that “Blood Money” no longer asks to be taken seriously, and can be enjoyed as a moderately eccentric action-suspense goof.
Nonetheless, there remain some real problems with the screenplay, as it lurches between humor, thrills and cloddish psychological realism. The lumpy mix is considerably smoothed by McKee, whose interesting résumé to date includes the morbid character study “May” as well as several adaptations of disturbing Jack Ketchum novels. Whether due to an editorial or screenplay decision, however, the movie loses tension from the pat device of opening with a flash-forward, giving us a too-explicit preview of climactic narrative events that will play out 80-odd minutes later.
The Georgia-shot feature looks very nice in Alex Vendler’s widescreen cinematography, with other design/tech contributions strong — though Matt Gates’ score is occasionally too bombastically conventional.