Why you should care

There are worse influences to wear on your sleeve than Joel and Ethan Coen.

It’s difficult to imagine a more fitting venue for Matt Shakman’s neo-noir, Cut Bank, than the Sun Valley Film Festival, where it screened in early March against the rugged beauty of Idaho’s high desert. The film’s namesake, a Montana town “where the Rockies meet the Plains,” is a key factor in a movie with themes far darker than its picturesque backdrop.

While shooting his girlfriend’s (Teresa Palmer) audition tape for the local beauty pageant in a gorgeous canola field, Dwayne (Liam Hemsworth) inadvertently captures the murder of a crotchety mailman (Bruce Dern) — an act that just happens to carry a $100,000 reward from the U.S. Postal Service. Suffice it to say that this isn’t entirely on the up-and-up, and several in the close-knit community — roles played by the likes of Billy Bob Thornton, John Malkovich, Oliver Platt and Michael Stuhlbarg — get entrenched in the low-level conspiracy.

Yokels abound here, and we’re left wondering whether they’re to be met with sympathy or affection.

This is the kind of scheme the Coen brothers have spent much of their career dreaming up. Shakman is deeply indebted to the Minnesota luminaries, and not just for the dark humor and extreme violence that color his direction of Cut Bank: Shakman’s view of small-town America is reminiscent of the Coens’ too. Yokels abound here, and we’re sometimes left wondering whether they’re to be met with sympathy, affection or something else altogether.

Like an increasing number of indies, Cut Bank became available on demand prior to its theatrical release on April 3. Michael Tully, a filmmaker who was in attendance at Sun Valley, doesn’t take this as a bad omen: “Even five years ago, releasing a noteworthy title straight to VOD might have seemed like a sign that something was ‘wrong,’ but that is objectively no longer the case.” VOD is the new normal, essentially, and filmmakers just want to connect audiences with their work. If that means beaming it straight into viewers’ living rooms, so be it.

Shakman lays on the homespun creepiness a bit thick at times. Consider Match, the fierce Native American who expresses himself via notepad rather than his vocal cords, or the stuttering, bespectacled taxidermist who murders anyone and everyone who gets in the way of him retrieving the p-p-parcel he’s been waiting on.

Still, the film redeems itself with what might be called a cynically optimistic ending, one that reinforces the sense of a community taking care of even its most imperfect denizens. The sign that welcomes visitors to Cut Bank announces it as the coldest spot in these United States, but the town is ultimately a warm place for those trying to do right by themselves and their loved ones. There may not be many of those folks left, but that just makes it all the more important to watch out for the few remaining.

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