Aiming somewhere between Coen brothers territory and "Twin Peaks" and landing awkwardly in the realm of self-conscious neo-noir, "Cut Bank" is filled with small-town quirkiness and propelled by a rising body count.
At the purported center of the thriller is a young couple eager to leave the titular Montana town in the rearview mirror. But with the likes of John Malkovich, Oliver Platt, Bruce Dern and Michael Stuhlbarg digging into pulpy character turns, the movie belongs to everyone but the California-dreamin' duo.
Aussies Liam Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer are convincingly American as Dwayne and Cassandra, yet their roles are generic. That's especially so of his bland schemer, who sets the plot in motion but never feels part of the drama.
The big-screen debut of TV director Matt Shakman ("It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia") and writer Roberto Patino ("Sons of Anarchy") revolves around a murder that Dwayne happens to catch on video. Because the dead man is a federal employee, Dwayne's evidence could land him a "lifetime sum" of a reward. Cue the arrival of Platt's Bluetooth-wearing government inspector and the requisite urban-rural culture clash, infused with well-played humor.
Portrayed with magnificent understatement by Malkovich, the local sheriff is on the case, even though he gets physically ill at the sight of a corpse. Cassandra's humorless father (Billy Bob Thornton) has his suspicions too, while reclusive taxidermist Derby Milton (a transformed Stuhlbarg) does his own sleuthing.
However good the actors, Derby's horror show of a back story, like the sheriff's more prosaically poignant one, registers only as writerly concoction. Patino's flights of high-flown language are both tasty and distracting; Dern, in ultra-crusty mode, makes the most of a crucial tirade. If only anything felt at stake in this story's dark spiral.
MPAA rating: R for violence and language.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
Playing: At Sundance Sunset Cinemas, West Hollywood.