With Blood Simple and Fargo, the Coen brothers so effectively staked their claim on the rural noir that it’s difficult not to think of them when the small-town con in Cut Bank starts to go bad.
In his first feature, Matt Shakman (who directed episodes of FX’s Fargo) envisions the real Cut Bank, Montana, as an outpost of Coen country, with eccentric residents, comfortably worn décor, and a kitschy penguin statue. But Shakman trades their comic violence and bleak humor for benevolent empathy and powerful vulnerability.
When Dwayne McLaren (Liam Hemsworth) and girlfriend Cassandra Steeley (Teresa Palmer) capture the shooting of squirrelly mailman Georgie Wits (Bruce Dern) on camera, they see the footage as their chance to finally leave town and get out from under her demanding father, Big Stan (Billy Bob Thornton). Screenwriter Roberto Patino (Sons of Anarchy) structures the film around their escape, but as soon as Sheriff Vogel (John Malkovich) appears onscreen, Cut Bank belongs to the worn men who never left, with their long-simmering resentments, desperate isolation, and thwarted desires. Without his usual tics, Malkovich is a wonder, quietly transforming an unassuming town fixture into Cut Bank‘s conscience. But the revelatory performance is Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) as Derby Milton. Stuhlbarg takes the clichés of a backcountry pariah (Coke-bottle glasses, debilitating stutter) and creates a stunning portrait of enforced solitude. No one wants the creepy recluse around, but God help anyone who keeps Derby from realizing the ideal community he’s built in their place.