Producers: Nathan Klingher, Mark Fasano, Noah Lang, Peter Jakl, Bernard Kira, Bobby Campbell, Arun Kumar, Ryan Winterstern, Ari Novak   Director: Rod Blackhurst   Screenplay: David Ebeltoft   Cast: Scoot McNairy, Kit Harington, Josh Lucas, Ethan Suplee, Stephen Dorff, Nora Zehetner, Amber Rose Mason, Chris Mullinax    Distributor: The Avenue

Grade: C

Imagine a Coen brothers film noir told glumly, without a hint of leavening humor, and you’ll have some idea of what “Blood for Dust” is like.  The film from Rod Blackhurst, who has a couple of real-life crime documentaries under his belt, is just too grimly formulaic to leave much of an impression, especially since the pacing (as edited by Justin Oakey) is so sluggish.

Its chief strength is Scoot McNairy, a long-time supporting actor here given the lead and doing a good job in a drab role.  He’s Cliff, who’s introduced in a brief prologue set in 1992 Boise along with Ricky (Kit Harington), as they rush into an office where a third man has just committed suicide with a shotgun.  It’s eventually revealed that the three were involved in some sort of embezzlement scheme while working for a firm called Meridian, and that by killing himself the dead man took the blame, leaving his partners free of legal culpability, if not guilt.  That’s especially true of Cliff since, as later becomes clear, he was having an affair with the suicide’s wife Rebecca (Amber Rose Mason).

Months later Cliff is now a down-on-his-luck salesman, peddling defibrillators from the truck of his car along the stretch of I-95 running through wintry Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.  (The bleakness of the locale—the picture was shot in the Billings area—is captured in Rob Ebeltoft’s production design, Olivia Perdoch’s costumes and Justin Derry’s cinematography, and Nick Bohun’s somber music underscores it.) He’s in desperate financial straits: his son is in the hospital, undergoing cancer treatment, and his wife Amy (Nora Zehetner) is supportive but worried about the future. 

Things get worse when his boss (Chris Mullinax) informs Cliff that he’s learned about his involvement in the Meridian scandal, which he’d omitted from his résumé, and fires him.  Desperate, and dismissed when he begs for a job from Gus (Stephen Dorff in a sharp cameo), a livestock dealer, he’s approached by Ricky in a strip club where he’s eating a solitary meal with an offer that promises big money.  Since it involves running guns and drugs he initially demurs, but when it’s obvious he has no other choice, Ricky takes him to see his boss John (Josh Lucas, huffing and puffing in a forlorn effort to seem menacing), who takes him on as a driver but assigns trusted Slim (Ethan Suplee) to ride shotgun on his first run.

During the journey Slim is concerned when he spies a pickup following them, and though the threat of violence seems to pass, Cliff notices the truck parked outside when he goes to visit Rebecca and her two small boys and finds her as obsessed with him as ever.  Nothing happens, however, until he and Slim reach their destination, a garage where they’re scheduled to turn over the cargo for a bundle of cash.  But Ricky suddenly appears with a change of plan that shows him, not surprisingly given Harington’s finicky, snarling performance, a guy one should never rely on.  Betrayal and gunplay fill the movie from that point on, though it does stray from the usual genre template by offering a glimmer of hopefulness at the end,

While technically an original screenplay by David Ebeltoft, “Blood for Dust” is so indebted to pulp novels from the likes of Jim Thompson and David Goodis and lesser films noirs of the forties and fifties, that it feels stale.  Despite a strong, somber turn from McNairy as a typically damaged protagonist and a convincingly depressing atmosphere, the film can’t escape an overfamiliar feel.