Cut Bank, Montana might be the last place we’d expect to witness an “Office Space” reference, and yet halfway through “Cut Bank” there it is—actor Michael Stuhlbarg asking after a parcel just as Stephen Root’s Milton did with a stapler. The line is meant as a source of both laughs and menace, but the minute Stuhlbarg’s villainous get-up lumbers into frame—heavy-lensed glasses, trucker hat, grimy fingernails—to a sting usually reserved for Jason Voorhees, we know towards which side of the spectrum director Matt Shakman’s leans. It’s just a shame that screenwriter Rodrigo Patino’s Black List script cribs from twenty other sources besides Mike Judge, planting accomplished actors in a dozy small town caper that never gains a sense of location or thrills.
Stuhlbarg’s backwoods creep Derby Milton makes up the most mystical aspect of Shakman’s feature directorial debut, his unstoppable and calm terror clearly modeled after Anton Chigurh were the character more talkative. But the rest of the film takes a very standard approach, which makes the presence of the dizzyingly good cast all the more strange. The lineup of John Malkovich, Bruce Dern, Oliver Platt and Billy Bob Thornton support a love-struck couple, played by Liam Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer, who have their sights firmly set on leaving their dead-end town for Los Angeles. But after the pair stumbles upon a murder—the first in Cut Bank’s history—that separates Milton from a cherished incoming package, the entire town is fair game for Derby’s wrath.
From that “Terminator”-esque objective it’s clear the genre makeup of “Cut Bank” tends toward plot rather than character; the trick of that comes when compressing its cast’s backstories into physical traits and one-off lines of dialogue—the economy needs to draw us in effectively, or else. On the page this almost works—the banter is snappy, the violence sparse and brutal, and the personalities distinctive—and it’s a fair bet that’s why such a high-profile cast boarded the project. But in execution, Shakman lets the scenes unfurl with a clunky pace and little verve, simply exaggerating the irony and naivety in the town as his main go-to points. It only makes sense that Malkovich’s sheriff has never fired his gun and carries an aversion to violence; likewise with Palmer, who itches non-stop after a Miss Cut Bank pageant title even while she wants nothing more than to skip town.
Thankfully humor seeps in through the edges of the film and its characters, sometimes on purpose and other times not. It hits most effectively when sending up small town intimacy, as when Derby is constantly quizzed about his private life by the locals, even as he’s about to maim them with a pair of bolt clippers. Malkovich also brings some fine timid touches to his role, lending a gentle disposition to his investigation that brings some great reaction shots. It’s no coincidence that Shakman directed the finale of FX’s “Fargo” series—he’s clearly attracted to that loving, slightly scathing portrait of Midwestern life, but with diminishing results here.
The quivering, suspenseful score drives the action along well enough over the beautiful cinematography by Ben Richardson (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”), who frames a stark field of yellow flowers early on and cements the one lingering moment of the film overall. He brings a golden glow to the rural surroundings that keep the film afloat even when the narrative lags, and he even makes Liam Hemsworth into a formidable thriller hero, occasionally.
Like Hemsworth and Palmer in the film though, “Cut Bank” fades into the background while its veteran actors look for ways to keep interested (like Bruce Dern delivering his trademark unhinged approach). It roars to a bitterly funny pitch every so often, but from the lack of life in the picture and such a stacked cast, you get the sense that the lunch breaks between filming resulted in more adventurous storytelling than the events that made it into the final cut. [D+]