Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A24 A-to-Z: #19. "Cut Bank" (2015)

Scene from Cut Bank
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

Cut Bank
Released: April 3, 2015 
Release Number: 19
Directed By: Matt Shakman
Written By: Roberto Patino
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Bruce Dern, John Malkovich
Plot: A young man's life is unraveled after witnessing a murder that he filmed in his rural town of Cut Bank.

The third year of A24 had started on a high note with the critically and financially successful While We're Young. But what would follow for the studio in the days leading up to their modern renaissance? The answer came in the promising entry of director Matt Shakman's Cut Bank. It was a crime thriller with an all star cast, and one that had prestige written all over it. With this marking Shakman's cinematic debut, the film would be a test of his talents and his ability to turn his experience in TV and stage into a unique story that twisted the familiar tale of crime and murder. It had a lot of promise and ingenuity thanks to a memorable opening scene, but with middling reviews and box office, the film was another entry in the ongoing flops from the DirecTV division of A24, proving that a talented cast isn't enough to save a production.

The film's beginning even had promise. Roberto Patino wrote the screenplay several years before the film was produced. In 2009, it joined the Blacklist as one of the best unproduced screenplays. Around the same time, Shakman was working as a TV director. Among his credits included diverse works ranging from Six Feet Under to Mad Men and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He had gained some acclaim previously for his work as a director for the Black Dahlia Theater troupe. It was a promising way to start, especially given Shakman's enthusiasm for the belief that actors should be able to do comedy and drama, as he was able to do in his earlier days. He also was mentored by Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond), so he borrowed some inspiration from him in terms of stylistic versatility.

It makes sense then that Shakman would cast the movie like a stage production, believing that every actor brings something important to the role. His most pursued talent was John Malkovich, of whom he admired not only as an actor but for starting the Steppenwolf Theater company. It wasn't expected however that Malkovich would be familiar with the story's town (Cut Bank, Montana), where he claimed to have worked for one summer. Other actors joined the project accordingly, including Bruce Dern, Oliver Platt, and Michael Stuhlbarg. Stuhlbarg's character is said to have been based off of Ed Gein, and in fact shares similarities to other depictions of Ed Gein in pop culture, specifically Norman Bates (Psycho) and Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs) in anti-social mannerisms and love for taxidermy. Along with getting recent heartthrob Liam Hemsworth (The Hunger Games), he was able to get composer James Newton Howard, making the overall production a bigger affair than one would initially expect on a $5 million budget.

Despite the film taking place in Montana, the film was actually shot over 27 days in Alberta, Canada. It was done during a hot summer, of which became a challenge for the crew. Shakman had done some TV work in Alberta, so he was aware of the challenges. However, there are scenes such as one with Dern in a tin trailer that were depicted as night but were done in scorching summer weather. The redness in his face gives away the contradicting "day for night" style of shooting. Shakman chose to shoot on 35 mm, believing that it added texture and personality to the film. He initially believed that shooting a movie would be easier than TV, but found that both involved fast work that relied on quick thinking. In the end, the film presented a story inspired, in Shakman's opinion, by The Last Picture Show in which a small town experiences change slowly, and ends up having a violent shift happen. 

The film premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June 2014. It wasn't long after that A24, in partnership with DirecTV, bought distribution for the movie. It would go on to play at the Toronto International Film Festival and other festivals along the way. The film would make its theatrical and on demand premiere a little under a year later on April 3, 2015. When discussing his collaboration with A24, Shakman claimed that:
"God bless A24. Their taste is great and eclectic. They are picking up movies that are very different from each other, but are all really worthy. I was so thrilled when they wanted to release Cut Bank. They’re a great group of people who really care. They are very supportive of the movie. They have devoted a lot of energy and great taste to their marketing and ad campaign with the artwork they are doing. They have left no small detail unnoticed. They are really on the ball and I’m really thrilled to be a part of a company that has released everything from Under the Skin, The Spectacular Now, Spring Breakers and A Most Violent Year. It’s a really great roster of movies and I’m thrilled to be a part of it."
The enthusiasm that Shakman had towards A24 wasn't matched in the general reviews of critics. The film would earn a 32% rating on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. Among the positive reviews was the surprisingly apathetic Molly Laich (The Missoula Independent), who wrote that "Cut Bank is a pretty terrible film that I've developed a misplaced affection for anyway." The reviews tended to fall more on the side of Brian Tellerico (Roger Ebert .com), who wrote that, "While there's some undeniably inherent joy in just seeing some of these great actors play off each other, the sum here is a shockingly dull affair, almost made more disappointing by the talent it wastes." The supporters were few in numbers, and even then the film lacked a big enough appeal for those defenders to give it any praise. It did however win a Golden Trailer Award for Best Independent Poster, which gives it a unique honor for its memorable Norman Rockwell homage artwork.

Cut Bank was a crime thriller that, for A24, had a better than average cast. Who could argue with a film almost entirely populated with Oscar nominees? However, it also was indicative of the unfortunate trend of A24/DirecTV crime thrillers: they were usually turkeys. The film had a great novel premise, but fell victim to the cliches that it sought not to use. It gave off the impression that the glory days of A24 were starting to disappear, especially coming off of 2014's lackluster output between Obvious Child and A Most Violent Year. With that said, things would be picking up a lot quicker with the next film, their 20th release. It wouldn't just be a critically acclaimed box office hit, it would be their first chance at Oscar glory with a film that was the first of a few from the year to get nominations. It was also the return of Oscar Isaac with the artificial life drama Ex-Machina.

Up Next: Ex-Machina (2015)

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