What do we have here? A bloody crime thriller featuring a desperate play for money, in which nobody was supposed to get hurt, gone horribly awry? Named after a small town in the upper Midwest, the alleged coldest town in America, whose inhabitants, God bless them, just ain’t so bright? Hmm. Where, oh, where have we seen this before?
In heavily borrowing from 1994’s “Fargo,” as well as 2014’s authorized FX network revival of the same name, the perhaps not-so-creative team behind “Cut Bank,” the new indie film set to open Friday night at 7 p.m. at the Roxy, seemed to forget to bum one or two key elements from the brothers Coen – namely the darker than a black steer’s tukus humor, the rich, likable characters, and, oh yeah, a plot.
Liam Hemsworth of “Hunger Games” fame, but perhaps better known to many as the real life Thor’s less talented brother, stars as dimwitted, brooding young Dwayne – a role, it could be argued, he was born to play. One-dimensional Dwayne aches to escape small town life in Cut Bank, Montana, with his equally bereft of brains girlfriend Cassandra (Teresa Palmer of “Warm Bodies.") And that’s about it. All we are offered in the way of character development is the two of them tossing around "ain’ts" and swapping spit for a not especially hot minute as they talk about “needin’ ta git out” at which point the plot allegedly thickens. When Dwayne pulls out his trusty camcorder to shoot Cassie’s homemade tourism video in the oh-so-innocent prairie, he apparently unwittingly captures the shooting of local postman George Wits (Bruce Dern of “Nebraska”) by a built, shadowy bad guy.
The couple hand the video over to Cassie’s stern father (Billy Bob Thornton) who calls up Sherriff Vogel (John Malkovich). The good sheriff, having never had to deal with a homicide, promptly high-tails it to the bathroom to toss his cookies after viewing the gruesome clip, which, if we’re being generous, must be intended as a heartfelt homage to Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson and her morning sickness.
At any rate, what passes for a plot in “Cut Bank” revolves around a $100,000 reward, which Dwayne the mouth breather refers to awkwardly as “a lifetime sum,” offered by the U.S. Post Office to anyone who brings forth proof leading to the capture of criminals who have murdered an employee. Dwayne, it would seem, stands to cash in, but won’t be able to unless a disinterested D.C. postal inspector played by Oliver Platt can verify the body. Therein lies the rub.
Dwayne might just be in over his head and old George may not be dead. Without spoiling any of the tedium that ensues, bodies start piling up and the whole sad parade devolves into a kind of bizarro horror flick in which we are ostensibly supposed to be rooting for the survival of our least favorite couple.
It needn’t have gone down like this. Veteran TV director Matt Shakman, who has worked on such standout series as “Mad Men,” “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” “Children's Hospital” and, yes, “Fargo,” is clearly capable of better and deserved a stronger script for his feature debut from writer Roberto Patino. The mostly strong yet completely wasted cast deserved better as well. So do the some 3,000 actual citizens of Cut Bank, Montana, who, to a person, were made out to be simple, silly, unredeemable idiots. Whereas “Fargo” at least had the clever Marge to speak for North Dakota’s inhabitants, Patino’s script assumes all small town, red state residents are morons for us city slickers to laugh at – only his attempt at dialogue for them isn’t even funny. What’s worse is that without the quirky North Dakota accents to subtly poke fun at, a Southern twang creeps out in some of the cast’s renditions of the Montana accent, as drawled “ain’ts” abound. Huh?
Then there’s the fact that while “Fargo” actually filmed in North Dakota and Minnesota, the producers of “Cut Bank” opted to award their business to our Albertan friends. While they can’t be blamed for taking advantage of the much larger tax credit, the famous Cut Bank penguin featured in the opening and closing sequences is sadly but a replica, a shoddy imitation of a true treasure, much like the film which features it.
Luke Johnson is a University of Montana graduate with degrees in both journalism and film production. He works as a freelance writer. You can follow him on twitter @LukeJacket