Whoever said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery probably didn’t go to the movies very often.
Okay, that’s a bit of an overstatement. We all know that the history of cinema is made up, at least in part, of great filmmakers being inspired by one another and frequently wearing these influences on their sleeves. But where’s the line between an homage and a rip-off? This is a question I pondered quite a bit during Cut Bank, a narcoleptic little small-town neo-noir that took me three tries to even finish watching. The flagrantly derivative film wants desperately to be a Coen Brothers movie, but instead works mainly as a throwback to those off-brand knock-offs that cluttered video store shelves in the mid-’90s—good news, I guess, if you’re nostalgic for Keys to Tulsa, Clay Pigeons or Feeling Minnesota.
Roberto Patino’s screenplay seems to have been concocted by Xeroxing alternating pages from Fargo and No Country for Old Men. Charisma-deficient Liam Hemsworth stars as a dreamer stuck in the small town of Cut Bank, Montana—which we’re frequently told is the coldest city in America, but since the film takes place during summer, this hardly matters. Hemsworth hatches a harebrained scheme to con $100,000 in reward money from the U.S. Postal Service by “accidentally” videotaping the murder of their local mailman (Bruce Dern).
Of course, the murder was faked for the camera, with Dern hiding out in a junkyard waiting for his share of the reward money. An obnoxious postal inspector (Oliver Platt) flies in from “the nation’s capital,” but he can’t sign over the check until he sees a body. The convolutions of Patino’s screenplay quickly provide several bodies, however, no small thanks to a stuttering, bespectacled mountain-man recluse (Michael Stuhlbarg)—who is equal parts Anton Chigurh and Milton from Office Space—impatiently waiting for a delivery that went missing during the phony crime and killing everyone who stands between him and his “p-p-parcel.”
In the midst of all this dross is a lovely performance by John Malkovich as kind Sheriff Vogel. Put off by profanity and vomiting at the sight of blood, he’s got the Tommy Lee Jones/Frances McDormand role here of local law enforcement chasing down the miscreants, heartbroken by the evil that men do all for what, a little bit of money? Malkovich has been such a caricature of himself for so many years, Christopher Walken-ized into a collection of kooky tics, that it’s beguiling to watch him play a straight-up decent fellow. I wish he’d do it more often, or at least in a better movie.
Director Matt Shakman is a TV vet who helmed a couple episodes of FX’s Fargo miniseries, so we’d already get that he likes the Coen Brothers even if he hadn’t stacked the cast with a roster of their former leading men (Malkovich, Stuhlbarg, and even Billy Bob Thornton in a thankless role as an uptight local businessman). But he appears to have precious little understanding of what makes the Coens tick: There’s no trace of the visual precision or attention to detail with which they brilliantly construct their alternate universes. The locations are bland, set-dressings are spartan, and the costumes nondescript. Though Patino’s script presents the town of Cut Bank as a quirky, one-of-a-kind community, in front of Shakman’s camera it’s as anonymous as a backlot in Burbank. (It does however, match the banality of lead Liam Hemsworth, who I have seen in at last half-a-dozen roles and yet still couldn’t pick out of a lineup.) This pictorial flatness is violently at odds with the screenplay’s intermittent, fumbling attempts at stylized, Coen-ish dialogue. When Hemsworth lets loose with the line, “Here you are, off in the Land of Nod with the jazzy playing and beer cans all about,” you’re wondering if he’s suffered a head injury.
It’s instructive that Cut Bank is rolling out around the same time as the Zellner brothers’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a mesmerizing spin on that old urban legend about a depressed young Japanese woman so obsessed with Fargo she traveled to America trying to find the money Steve Buscemi buried by the side of the road. The Zellners use shots from the 1996 film and elements of its score as totems, reflecting on the Coens’ classic to create something that feels new and entirely of their own. Seeing these movies in close succession leaves you with even less patience for Cut Bank’s anemic rehash.