It would be mildly facetious to imply a direct correlation between the workmanlike prolificacy of director Matt Shakman’s diverse television work and the episodic ungainliness of his feature debut, Cut Bank, but it would also be unwise to ignore the salient effects of medium crossover. The film relies on fresh star power (Liam Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer) to carry it while strengthening its stature with supporting roles by seasoned vets (John Malkovich, Bruce Dern, Billy Bob Thornton). It has a convoluted plot whose knottier details are unsatisfyingly truncated by the shorter run time. Elements of romance, thriller, melodrama, and dark comedy are shuttled through without the film ever resolving on any particular tonal frequency. And, perhaps most flagrant of all, Cut Bank reflects a pattern that crops up now and again in the televisual realm: the superficial mugging of the eccentricities of brand-name directors whose careers have flourished largely in the cinema.
The Coens and David Lynch are the prime guiding spirits here. Robert Patino’s script drops us into Cut Bank, Montana, here envisioned as a composite of the fictional universes of Twin Peaks and Fargo, where thrice we’re shown a roadside totem proclaiming the town as the “coldest spot in the nation.” (That Shakman sets his film in the summer and still dwells on this detail makes one wonder why he bothered to set it here at all.) Dwayne Mclaren (Hemsworth) is a good ol’ boy who seeks to flee his hometown with his blond sweetheart, Cassandra (Palmer), by involving himself in a shady murder scheme: While taking a video of his girlfriend’s pageant rehearsal, he “accidentally” photographs incriminating evidence in the background. Rewards are expected, but karma results. As this turmoil sorts itself out in bloody and preposterous ways, an out-of-town businessman shows up to rave about the local culinary goods (“Damn, the best fuckin’ cobbler I’ve ever had!”), an aging bombshell (Sonya Salomaa) reminisces at the local diner about her glory days as Miss Cut Bank, and a key character gets wrapped in plastic. Such touches aim for archetypal Americana, but wind up as secondhand mimicry of the same disembodied-ear-behind-the-picket-fence dichotomies wielded to much sharper effect in the work of Lynch and the Coens.
Cut Bank’s narrative involves the dawning realization of Sheriff Vogel (John Malkovich) to the horrible amoral muck that lies beyond the grasp of his modest, traditional notion of justice. All that really separates his soft-spoken lawman from the one played by Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men is that he vomits uncontrollably when he sees carnage where Jones just sulked and looked away. In both films, old-school order must bow in resignation to the new state of capitalist-inflected criminal affairs, but unlike the Coens’ postmodern western, Cut Bank never offers a pointed directorial perspective on these matters, and indeed never really develops a committed focus in any particular aesthetic or thematic direction. If it’s a morality tale for the rash young Dwayne, it’s too thin on his characterization; all that’s provided with regard to his hopes and fears is that he wants to move to LA. If it’s a commentary on the ways in which larger shifts in national values have infected the wholesomeness of rural communities, its sympathies don’t extend far beyond Malkovich’s sheriff, as witnessed in several offhand examples of the condescension toward backwoods folk of which Alexander Payne is so often accused. And if Cut Bank is meant only as a pulpy genre exercise, Shakman’s competence in various modes actually works to strip the film of any sense of coherent vision.