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Director Rod Blackhurst’s tough crime film Blood for dust it’s nothing new under the sun – or, more accurately, the freezing sun of Wyoming and Montana, where the story takes place. But with a series of burnished, lived-in performances from a strong cast and an underlying layer of suspense punctuated by some gnarly action set pieces, it’s certainly a watchable little genre adventure that could find an audience, especially on streaming.
Fargo (both the film and the TV series) immediately come to mind in this early 90s thriller that feels very much like an early 90s product, with plenty of caustic dialogue and outbursts of gory violence set against the backdrop of the desolation of the Western America. Following a deserted salesman, Cliff (Scoot McNairy), who gets involved in the illegal drug trade by his badass ex-colleague, Ricky (Kit Harington), he heads to mostly familiar places, but manages to do so in a way that makes us feel like stick around for the trip.
Blood for dust
Well executed without breaking new ground.
Place: Tribeca Film Festival (fiction spotlight)
Launch: Scoot McNairy, Kit Harington, Josh Lucas, Ethan Suplee, Stephen Dorff, Nora Zehetner, Amber Rose Mason
Director: Rod Blackhurst
Screenwriter: David Ebeltoft
1 hour and 44 minutes
A grim opening has a boy blowing his brains out in his tiny corporate office, where he was supposed to meet with Cliff and Ricky after hours. Fast forward to a year and a half later, with Cliff now selling defibrillators to midsize companies across the West, struggling and mostly failing to make ends meet. As indicated in any good modern film noir guide, he eventually ends up alone in a strip club, where he meets Ricky, who invites him on a smuggling ring led by a bad local kingpin (a wild Josh Lucas).
You don’t have to be a fan of Fargo OR Simple blood or also A simple plan to understand that things will not go well for Cliff, who is tasked with driving a station wagon full of coke or heroin along Montana’s I-90 highway. He’s accompanied by a creepy, silent henchman (Ethan Suplee) who watches over him in creepy ways, while he’s pursued by a suspicious pickup truck that appears in all the places it shouldn’t.
No need to reveal the plot further – credited to Blackhurst and David Ebeltoft, with a script by the latter – which has some good twists but also feels predictable, especially in the last act. What makes Blood for dust the work is elegant filmmaking, as well as McNairy’s sad, slippery portrayal of a penniless nobody who decides crime is the only thing that pays off.
Blackhurst, who has directed true-crime documentaries about both Amanda Knox and John Wayne Gacy, has a keen eye for depicting the grim details of Cliff’s grim life: the faceless motels he stays in as he sells medical supplies on the street or the people who he can’t get to help him, including a cruel cattle auctioneer convincingly played by Stephen Dorff.
Collectively, these details paint a grim portrait of Western rural malaise and, unlike the Coens’ films, one that contains no humour. Harington brings a bit of levity to the proceedings early on, speaking in an accent so sharply American sour that it’s as if his character is subsisting entirely on beef jerky. Soon enough, we realize that Ricky, for all his tough guy charm, won’t necessarily lend a hand to Cliff, and things will only go further.
Beautifully taken by Justin Derry (Bruiser), which makes the frozen landscapes seem both monumental and lonely, the indie film makes the most of its modest budget, which was raised by 28 producers and executive producers who have frozen credit. That’s what it takes to finance these kinds of small-scale genre films in the United States today and in the future Blood for dust doesn’t break new ground in its domain, it should give the talented Blackhurst enough mileage to keep doing them.