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film review

Liam Hemsworth and Billy Bob Thornton star in Cut Bank.Dan Power

Surrounded by blanketing golden fields of canola and populated by scheming hipster character actors, the Montana town of Cut Bank – uninvitingly touted in the movie as America's coldest spot – is home to a series of events largely unfortunate because you can see them coming almost as far off as the horizon. And because, if you've already been to Fargo, or at least visited the place via movies or TV, you've got scant reason to go to Cut Bank.

Shifting into his first feature fresh from directing a couple of episodes of last year's commendably robust TV spinoff of the Coens's 1996 small-town comedy noir, Matt Shakman has taken more than a little Fargo to Montana. Too much, alas, to make us overlook the influence of his inspirational betters, and not enough to make us stop wondering exactly why he bothered to make the trip.

The opening, set in the midst of those sprawling, eye-poppingly bright canola fields, is admittedly promising. As the local brooding-hunk Dwayne (Liam Hemsworth) shoots a civic-booster audition video for his girlfriend Cassandra (Teresa Palmer), a crime is captured in the on-camera distance: the local mailman (Bruce Dern) is popped and robbed, setting in motion a daisy chain of mishaps and mayhem that will ultimately expose Cut Bank – the town – as a seething cauldron of lethal local connivances, and Cut Bank – the movie – as proof that you can take the Coens out of Fargo, but …

Upon receiving news that the town he's kept trouble-free is now home to its very first murder, Sheriff Vogel (John Malkovich) is roused from his habitual state of sleepy domestic distraction and drawn into a case that gets more twisted and complicated with every incoming phone call. Before you know it, the only thing competing with canola as a flourishing growth industry in Cut Bank is suspicion and, making like a more medicated version of Tommy Lee Jones's existentially perplexed old-school lawman in No Country For Old Men, Vogel gets to wondering if the whole town hasn't gone to hell in a pickup. Was there more to the murder than met the eye? Or less to the murder than maybe even murder? And what's a guy who looks like Hemsworth doing waist-deep in canola, anyway?

Our wondering, in the meantime, takes a more practical and less dramatic form. As in, I wonder when the next bus leaves for Butte, Mont.?

Written by Sons of Anarchy regular contributor Roberto Patino, Cut Bank is larded with grizzled eccentrics like Malkovich, Dern and the TV Fargo's own Billy Bob Thornton, and laced with the kind of accidental splatterings, grinding gear reversals and faux yokel schtick that has become such a Coen hallmark. But in the Joel and Ethan universe of rural noir, which itself owes a debt to the hard-boiled perversity of writers such as Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett and Cormac McCarthy, the notions of traditional down-home, front-porch Americana are strategically juxtaposed with deeper stains on the human soil: greed never stops at the city limits, lust respects no local traditions and piety is no protection against sin.

But to make this work takes a certain kind of poetic cynicism and subtlety: Think of how gradually the sin seeps through the chipper veneer of civic cordiality in the original Fargo, or of how implacably evil takes its course in No Country. In the Coen-lite Cut Bank, these things are taken as a given: They don't descend and seep poisonously into the local well, they're already rooted in the rolling landscape, the moral equivalent of the canola fields.

It's a question of process. What's both funny and unnerving about Fargo – both movie and TV series – is the grim conviction that almost anything can be corrupted, and what transfixes us is watching the systematic unravelling of (almost) all that is good and righteous. Quite apart from the equally apparent lack of the Coens's extraordinary visual acuity, Cut Bank comes up short because it simply presumes that guilt and evil already live in town, just waiting for us to arrive and see the show.

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