With its uninviting snowbound setting, drab wood-paneled roadside motels and bars, and sudden explosions of gangland violence, there is a decidedly Fargo-like shape to Rod Blackhurst’s Blood for Dust. The story of an overextended salesman and husband pulled into a criminal enterprise because of the stifling limitations of an honest day’s work — leaving a trail of bodies in his wake — Blood for Dust parts company with the beloved Coen brothers’ film when it comes to tone. There is no impish grand design, gallows humor, regional specificity, or, most importantly, bleak yet exacting sense of style. Instead, the film carries itself like a morose elegy for the American dream, one where desperate men live out of a suitcase and can’t afford to put gas in their cars after schlepping from sales call to sales call. The template here is as much Willy Loman as it is Jerry Lundegaard. This lends a self-seriousness to the proceedings, while also draining much of the fun out of all the double-crossing and scheming at play.
Scoot McNairy plays Cliff, a salesman for a medical supplies company trying to sell defibrillators out of his Oldsmobile across the Mountain West, desperate for a large enough commission check that will allow him to pay off his mounting debts back home. Years earlier, Cliff was caught up in some shady business dealings: money disappeared from the company he worked at, and an accountant blew his brains out at the office. Cliff avoided real consequences at the time, but the fallout follows him everywhere he goes, making a tough job even harder as whispers about past impropriety hound him, freezing him out of legitimate opportunities. It’s a good thing he still has friends in low places.
Cliff is approached at a characteristically depressing strip club — where he seems more interested in the food than the girls — by Ricky (Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow, Kit Harington), a former coworker who likewise got caught up in the bad business with the missing money. Sporting a giant handlebar mustache and a geographically confusing good-ol’-boy accent, Ricky announces his criminality in his every word and action, splashing around cash while dismissing the entire notion of selling legal goods as a sucker’s game. Ricky splits his time between gun-running and acting as a drug mule for a local crime syndicate that is presently looking for someone with low visibility to ferry hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of product across state lines. With his Haggar slacks and sweaters and hangdog expression, Cliff doesn’t look the part of a drug dealer, which makes him a perfect front for some bad hombres (led by Josh Lucas’ low-key terrifying ringleader, John, who gingerly gesticulates while holding his wire-rimmed glasses when he’s not slamming Cliff’s head into a table). Soon, Cliff’s paired up with a stoic, gun-toting babysitter (Ethan Suplee), and the two go on the road with a trunk full of narcotics, hoping to avoid detection by both the law and rival outfits.
With a film like this, it’s never a question of if things will go south but rather how badly they will. The agent of chaos here is Ricky, who unexpectedly shows up to the drug buy, guns blazing, killing everyone in the room except for Cliff. Intending to sell the cocaine he just ripped off from his employer to yet another buyer, and using the ill-gotten earnings to fund his exit from a life of crime, it becomes a real question as to whether Ricky kept Cliff alive out of an ingrained sense of loyalty or simply as a contingency plan in case he needs a patsy somewhere down the road. Not quite a hostage but definitely not free to come and go as he pleases, Cliff silently contemplates his options. Can he actually extricate himself from the situation with both his life and his share of the cash? And is there really such a thing as getting away clean?
In its dramatic beats, Blood for Dust couldn’t be more familiar, which is only exacerbated by how sluggishly paced it is. The first act, in particular, is interminable in establishing Cliff’s practically hand-to-mouth existence, as well as his emotional and physical distance from his wife (Nora Zehetner). Meanwhile, much of the film’s final 30 minutes is spent in a conveniently vacant, unfurnished house where Cliff and Ricky go round and round about the nature of morality, guilt, and the collateral damage of a life in crime. But there’s little crackle to the dialogue (credited to David Ebeltoft, based on a story by Ebeltoft and Blackhurst), nor any real tension between Cliff and Ricky. Harington slots into the Johnny Boy in Mean Streets role here as the ne’er-do-well, casually threatening friend, but there are scant signs of real danger in the performance and no chemistry to speak of with McNairy. We’re ultimately forced to accept both the friendship and the omnipresent threat of violence almost entirely because the scenario demands as much.
If the film works at all, it’s attributable to McNairy. Long one of our most dependable character actors — he’s provided memorable supporting turns in films like Argo, Gone Girl, and Killing Them Softly — McNairy draws upon his soft-spoken pragmatism in a rare leading role to paint Cliff as an unassuming family man, concealing his demons by demonstrating quiet competence. Though projecting fundamental decency, Cliff also has a tendency to keep things close to the vest, with the character proving to be more of a wildcard than he initially lets on. Blood for Dust is at its best when it finds Cliff being underestimated, allowing McNairy to turn things around on his more outwardly intimidating co-stars. There’s a real intelligence to the performance, as well as an unshowy desperation to the way Cliff navigates right and wrong while attempting to provide for his loved ones (who aren’t necessarily his family). But it’s not hard to appreciate a deserving actor getting a showcase role while still acknowledging the film around it as derivative and listless. Blood for Dust functions largely as a generic crime-drama, but absent either the tangy malevolence or the affecting pathos of the films that ostensibly inspired it.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 23.5.
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