Less “Fargo Lite” than “Fargo Flat,” “Cut Bank” tries to transfer to Montana the same sort of dark, quirky, distinctly nefarious humor that the Coens situated in North Dakota, but the result is an unappetizing brew that wastes the talents of a fine cast.
The film is the work of two television veterans—writer Roberto Patino (“Sons of Anarchy”) and director Matt Shakman (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” as well as a couple of episodes in the “Fargo” mini-series). It starts with the apparent murder of postman Georgie Wits (Bruce Dern) on an isolated rural road. But the killing is accidentally filmed from an adjacent field by Dwayne McLaren (Liam Hemsworth), who happens to be helping his girlfriend Cassandra (Teresa Palmer) practice her routine for the upcoming Miss Cut Bank contest.
After conferring with Cassandra’s domineering father Big Stan Steeley (Billy Bob Thornton), in whose garage he also works, Dwayne turns the incriminating footage over to Sheriff Vogel (John Malkovich). Other folks who become involved in the plot include a giant-sized Indian called Match (David Burke), a postal inspector named Joe (Oliver Platt) and—most importantly—a reclusive fellow named Darby Milton (Michael Stuhlbarg), who’s obsessed with locating a parcel that was lost in Georgie’s undelivered mail.
It wouldn’t do to reveal too much of what follows; suffice it to say that one of the characters is the story’s equivalent of William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, trying to pull off a scam (involving the reward for helping to resolve the killing of a postal employee) that gets him into deeper and deeper trouble, while Sheriff Vogel is a stand-in for Marge Gunderson. But the comparisons only serve to emphasize how pallid “Cut Bank” is beside “Fargo.”
Vogel, for example, is effectively characterized by two quirks: one is his squeamishness around blood (though he seems to conquer it pretty quickly as bodies pile up) and the other is carrying around a rabbit-foot key chain. Even as skilled an actor as Malkovich can’t make much of those. Thornton is similarly stymied by dialogue so stilted that it can barely be delivered, let alone invested with comic gold, and Stuhlbarg by a catalogue of tics (coke-bottle glasses, a stutter, a perpetually downcast expression).
Meanwhile Hemsworth is unbelievably stolid and dull, as if overburdened not only by Dwayne’s devotion to a seriously ill father but by a script that gives the character no emotional heft. Only Dern and Platt escape the general malaise by overplaying broadly; none of the subtlety of the former’s work in “Nebraska” is to be found on this occasion, even though Georgie Wits and Woody Grant are both Montanans, and Platt mimics his oversized turn in the televised “Fargo” as the brash government man. In what is essentially a male-oriented film, Palmer is wasted in a thankless sweet-young-thing role. The technical credits are uniformly adequate without being in any sense exceptional, though cinematographer Ben Richardson makes decent use of the Canadian locations (the film was shot there rather than in Montana).
“Cut Bank” does offer the opportunity to watch some solid veteran actors in extended roles, and all of them provide occasional flashes of brilliance. It’s just unfortunate that Patino didn’t give them better material to work with, and that Shakman doesn’t present their performances with much style. This is a thoroughly pedestrian stroll through Coen brothers territory.