Cut Bank (2015)     ★★★★

Cut Bank, MT is the coldest spot in the United States, home to 3,000 people, and the setting for the feature debut of director Matt Shakman, a director of television shows as disparate as It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and the recent critically acclaimed Fargo, which is of little surprise as Cut Bank is cut from the same cloth as the Coen brothers’ 1996 hit black comedy Fargo, upon which that series is based. But unlike that film, which Cut Bank is drawing consistent comparisons to, Shakman eschews its local color and self-conscious dialogue, which will forever date it as a victim in the wake of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, for a much greater reliance on character and plot mechanics.

Cut Bank‘s inciting incident is yet another heist gone wrong, as Liam Hemsworth’s Dwayne McLaren stages a fake murder of a postal worker (Bruce Dern), and captures it on video in order to collect the 100,000 dollar reward for having evidence of a federal crime. Things go awry when his boss, and girlfriend’s father (Billy Bob Thornton), catches on, and when a local psychopath goes searching for a parcel that never got delivered, and soon all hell breaks loose as bodies start turning up left and right.

The beauty of Shakman’s film is in its simplicity, and economy of storytelling. There is always a twist right around the corner, and the extensive cast is given just enough screen time and development for the actors to dig in and make their characters memorable; and in that cast is where Cut Bank truly shines. John Malkovich plays the town sheriff, all small town and “gee whiz” one minute, but deeply affected by what happens in his town and determined to see it through the next. For awhile it seems like Thornton is just along to boost the film’s resume, and then he turns out to be the smartest character in the film. Oliver Platt dives into his role as a postal inspector who really knows how to eat a steak. Bruce Dern is given a moment of truly inspired dialogue that is actually bolstered by having experienced his recent performance in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. A Serious Man‘s Michael Stuhlbarg (another Coen brothers link) is brilliant as crazy Derby Milton, the film’s loose cannon who dispatches, without a moment’s hesitation, those who can’t help him find his parcel. And even Liam Hemsworth shines, as both foil and criminal mastermind, in what is perhaps his best role to date; he does mopey very well, and his completely ineffective Dwayne has plenty of opportunities for that.

Cut Bank is not a great film by any means. It’s a modest, direct-to-VOD comedy/thriller with a cast that knows how to have a good time in front of the camera. It doesn’t try to be anything more than a solid genre picture, and its refusal to skate by on pedigree alone makes the film prime viewing for an evening when you just feel like escaping for ninety minutes.

The Verdict: Rave