‘It Comes at Night’ is Not Your Average Psychological Horror Movie

It Comes at Night movie poster

It Comes at Night” cannot and should not be mistaken for your average psychological horror movie. Whereas the average genre film aims to delineate who the good guys and the bad guys are, no such distinction is made here as writer and director Trey Edward Shults has rendered the characters to be all too human. We understand their wants, needs and motivations very well, and this makes the movie even more unsettling than it already is.

We are introduced to Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as they lay Sarah’s father, Bud (David Pendleton), to rest in a most uncomfortable way. We soon learn the family has secluded themselves in their country home as some highly contagious disease has since laid waste to the world. Along with their dog, Stanley, the family keeps themselves out of danger by staying locked up at night when the danger which threatens humanity is at its most powerful point.

But their bubble is suddenly threatened when a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home, believing it to be unoccupied and in desperate need of supplies for himself and his family. After tying Will to a tree overnight to confirm he is not infected by the disease, Paul decides he is worth helping and succeeds in bringing Will’s wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and their son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), to safety to where they are all leaving under the same roof. But even as they come to settle down comfortably with one another, the inevitable conflicts arise which will force them into a game of survival no one can back away from peacefully.

Shults made an unforgettable directorial debut with “Krisha” which was one of my favorite movies of 2016. While “Krisha” was an emotionally pulverizing motion picture, “It Comes at Night” is one which mercilessly plays with your head as it taps into your fears of the things you can’t see or understand. Paul, Sarah and Travis rarely stray far from their country home as just about everything outside of seems all too threatening to confront. Whether or not you think Shults gives the “it” of the movie’s title a clear definition, it won’t matter. The it could be anything. It could be a supernatural force, an incurable disease, or perhaps it is the realization of the violent deeds we are capable of committing when pushed to our breaking point.

“In order to appease the gods, the Druid priests held fire rituals. Prisoners of war, criminals, the insane, animals… were… burned alive in baskets. By observing the way they died, the Druids believed they could see omens of the future. Two thousand years later, we’ve come no further. Samhain isn’t evil spirits. It isn’t goblins, ghosts or witches. It’s the unconscious mind. We’re all afraid of the dark inside ourselves.”

                                                                                                                           -Donald Pleasance

                                                                                                                            “Halloween II

I put the above quote from “Halloween II” up above because those words were playing in my head while watching “It Comes at Night.” Looking at these characters, you can tell they were once decent people who wanted nothing more than to raise their families and live in peace, but the state of the world has forced them to defend what is theirs in a way they never thought they would resort to. This is especially the case with Paul who has long since become handy with a shotgun and disposing of corpses. But Edgerton, who is excellent as Paul, eventually shows the character at his most vulnerable state as he comes to see not just the person he has become, but the person he always was.

Shults shows the fears of all these characters reaching their peak at nighttime when fear and paranoia combine to create a more hostile environment than the one outside their front door. Speaking of the front door, it is painted a dark red as horror movies always feature a red door or two, and Paul makes it clear to everyone how the door must always stay locked at night, always. As Roger Corman once said, one of the scariest images in any movie is the closed door. So, when the door moves suddenly is ajar, Shults has us right in his grasp to where we are sitting straight up in our chairs.

In addition to Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr. provide strong support as Paul’s wife, Sarah, and their son Travis. Together, they portray a family much like any other, struggling to survive in an increasingly insane world. Christopher Abbott, so good in “James White,” inhabits the character of Will with both a tense desperation and an easy-going attitude as he settles in with Paul and his family. This is an actor incapable of faking an emotion, and his performance in “It Comes at Night” is the latest example. Riley Keough is also excellent as Will’s wife, Kim, as she makes her an enigmatic presence to where you don’t know whether to hug her or keep your distance from her.

In making everything seem so down to earth, “It Comes at Night” does suffer as things become more underplayed than they should have been. There were times where I wished Shults had injected more energy into the story as things begin to feel way too subtle. Still, when the movie works, it really works as the tension builds to a fierce climax where I could not find myself rooting for one person over the other. Shults is also assisted by his “Krisha” collaborators Drew Daniels whose cinematography makes the darkness these characters live in all the more threatening and claustrophobic, and by composer Brian McOmber who provides another unsettling score which builds up an already intense motion picture into something feverishly intense.

The ending of “It Comes at Night” proves to be both infuriating and utterly haunting as we are left to wonder what will become of whoever is left. It feels like the movie ended sooner than it should have, but perhaps it would have been unfair to ask Shults to give us something more definitive. Still, it’s nice to see something like this occupying the local movie houses alongside the summer blockbusters as it gives us a lot to ponder once the lights come up.

As for myself, the post-apocalyptic setting of this movie is almost secondary to the one thing which should matter the most to these characters – trust. Whether we are living in the best of times or the worst of times, trust is the one thing we need more than anything else to survive one hard working day after another. Without trust, how can we survive in a crazy world? “It Comes at Night” confronts the issue of trust head-on, and it is devastating to see it break down amongst characters who might otherwise have no problem living under the same roof.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Haley Joel Osment Comes of Age in ‘Tusk’

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It feels like it has been forever since we have seen Haley Joel Osment in anything. Ever since his unforgettable Oscar-nominated performance as Cole Sear in “The Sixth Sense,” he has gone on to do memorable work in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.,” “Pay it Forward” and “Secondhand Lions” in which he co-starred with the actor who beat him out for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Sir Michael Caine. But after that, he disappeared to where we thought he had become just another child actor who couldn’t make the transition to an adult acting career like Kurt Russell and Jodie Foster did.

Well, it turns out he was away at New York University studying experimental theater, and this later led to him making his Broadway debut in a revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” These days he does a lot of voiceover work, he has a recurring role on the Amazon series “Alpha House” and he is starring in Kevin Smith’s latest film “Tusk.” In it, he plays Teddy Craft who, along with his friend Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), hosts a podcast show called “The Not-See Party.” When Wallace suddenly goes missing while he’s in Canada, Teddy and Wallace’s girlfriend Ally Leon (Génesis Rodríguez) travel there to find him, and what they discover is… Well, just see the movie.

Osment looks like he’s having a lot of fun as Teddy, and you really get the sense he is a natural for podcasting. “Tusk” is certainly one of the weirder and more original movies to come out in a while, and he explained what drew him to it.

“The writing was so good,” Osment said of Smith’s screenplay. “The characters were clear and then he (Smith) kind of does this cool thing where, once he got to know us on set, he would just generate material based on just starting to know us more. He wrote that great monologue for Genesis and an extended podcasting scene for me and Justin. He will answer any question you ask him, but his big thing was always saying ‘remember to have fun’ and stuff like that. He isn’t someone saying, ‘Hey, remember to get this part of the character’ or something. He trusts his actors to do that.”

For me, I was very interested in how Osment made the transition to becoming an adult actor. It’s never easy, and Hollywood does have a reputation for chewing up actors and spitting them out. But Osment has come out on the other side looking like a wonderfully down to earth human being, and he remains a terrific actor after all these years. When I asked him how tough his career transition was, his response was simple and to the point.

“As an actor, I feel really lucky because I have been lucky enough to have a lot of experiences on sets and still be relatively young,” Osment said. “It’s fun because your body is kind of your instrument and, if you’re getting old over a period of time and everything, I just remember doing characters as a kid. Now being an adult and having a romantic interest and things like that, the variety is just really exciting so I guess I feel lucky.”

Seriously, it’s great to see Osment keeping busy. I imagine we will see a lot more of him soon, and it will be interesting to see where his career goes from here.

Genesis Rodriguez is Ready for her Closeup in ‘Tusk’

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She has left her mark in a number of Telemundo telenovelas as well as in movies like “Identity Thief,” “The Last Stand” and “Casa de mi Padre,” but in Kevin Smith’s “Tusk,” Génesis Rodríguez shows the world just how good of an actress she can be. She plays Ally Leon, the girlfriend of Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), and she tries to make him see what a selfish person he has become thanks to the fame his podcast “The Not-See Party” has brought him. But as much as Ally criticizes his shortcomings, she is reduced to tears when she accepts the fact they come to mirror her own.

“Tusk” has been the subject of a lot of talk ever since Smith announced it as his next project. The idea came about from an episode of “SModcast” where he and co-host Scott Mosier read an ad about a man offering a rent-free situation for a tenant who is willing to dress up as a walrus and make walrus sounds all day long. It makes for one of the more unique movies, and many were eager to find out what exactly drew the actors to be in it.

Rodríguez was at “Tusk’s” press day held at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California, and she was asked about her initial reaction to Smith’s screenplay.

“Reading the script, I made the big mistake of reading it at midnight,” Rodríguez said with a laugh. “I know, big mistake, so I couldn’t go to sleep. I literally thought about the walrus all night. I started listening to The Beatles and it was just like I went ‘goo goo goo goo joob’ totally. And then afterward I heard the SModcast episode and then I became obsessed with the idea. It was like, okay, this is the kind of movie I want to do. It’s clearly not a remake (laughs) so it’s good to be a part of something so unique and so different and to leave your little mark on such I thought was gonna be, the minute I read it, a cult favorite whether you hate it or love it. It’s that kind of movie. It’s memorable, that’s for sure (laughs).”

For me, the highlight of Rodríguez’s performance was her close-ups in which she confesses to Long her confused emotions which are tearing her apart. It turns out Smith, once he got to know her better, wrote a monologue for her to perform, and she ends up performing it in a truly riveting fashion. Seeing the stream of emotions crossing her face during this close-up held my attention to where everything else around me went completely silent. I was eager to learn how she pulled this monologue and the close ups off, and her answer implied it involved her not knowing one specific thing.

“Thankfully, I didn’t know how close up they were,” Rodríguez said of the cameras. “It kind of freaked me out, but I just let the dialogue guide me to an emotion and I tried to make it as honest as possible. I’ve never had that shot to really show that side of myself in the movies, so I just wanted to do Kevin justice, and he took a chance on writing me that monologue. I hope I did him proud.”

The way I see it, Rodriguez did Smith proud.

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‘Tusk’ Should Not Be Mistaken for a Mainstream Film

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To be honest, I’m glad Kevin Smith hasn’t retired from filmmaking (or at least, not yet). I’ve enjoyed all his movies except for “Cop Out,” which I’m sure he doesn’t care for either. When it comes to “Red State,” I found it to be a major leap out of Smith’s safety zone which resulted in his best directorial effort yet. Now we have “Tusk,” his second visit to the horror genre and one of the more original and bizarre movies to come out in a long time. It has its moments of comedy, but it is mostly a serious film dealing with one American’s journey into Canada and of the horrific fate awaiting him there.

Justin Long stars as Wallace Bryton, one of the hosts of a popular podcast called “The Not-See Party” (get it?), and he and his good friend Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment) live to have fun at the expense of others. Their latest target is the “Kill Bill Kid” who accidentally sliced off one of his legs with a sword while attempting to perform one of that movie’s famous moves, and Wallace decides he and Teddy should travel to Canada to interview him. Teddy, however, doesn’t like to fly, so Wallace goes over there all by his lonesome.

When Wallace gets to Canada, he discovers the “Kill Bill Kid” has died which leaves him without an interview. Despondent, he stops by a bar where he discovers a handbill from a man who claims to have a lifetime of stories to tell, and he is offering free room and board to those interested in hearing him out. Wallace jumps at the chance to listen to what he has to say and travels out to the man’s house which, like in any other horror movie, is located in the middle of nowhere. It is there he meets Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a wheelchair-bound old man who regales Wallace with tales of his life at sea. One of those tales involves a ship he was on which sank and led to him meeting a walrus who saved him from drowning. Howard came to name the walrus Mr. Tusk, and he still considers Mr. Tusk to be the best companion he ever had.

As Howard continues to talk, Wallace begins to lose consciousness as, like those horny teenagers in “Red State,” he has been drugged and eventually passes out. When Wallace wakes up, he finds himself in the hands of a man intent on turning him into a walrus. We all know what curiosity did to the cat, but Wallace looks to be heading towards a fate far worse than death here.

I don’t think it’s any secret of what happens to Wallace in “Tusk,” and perhaps it is best for those who haven’t seen the movie yet to stop reading this review now. The inspiration for this movie came from “SModcast,” a weekly podcast Smith does with Scott Mosier. On one episode they talked about an ad from a British website where a man was offering free room and board for anyone willing to dress up in a walrus suit and make walrus noises while he throws them fish and crabs to eat. We get to hear some of this episode during “Tusk’s” end credits, and Smith and Mosier are laughing their asses off as they discuss how the movie would play out. Seriously, it got to where I was kind of amazed at how the story evolved from the podcast to this finished movie.

Like “Red State,” “Tusk” is not the kind of horror movie designed to make you jump out of your seat every five minutes. Instead, it is more about people confronted with a terrifying situation which proves to be way beyond their control, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do. Robert Kurtzman was the effects artist, so that should give you an idea of just how horrific Wallace’s transformation is. It may not quite equal what Jeff Goldblum went through in “The Fly,” but it does provide the audience with a very unsettling visual.

Long has a tricky role to play as Wallace is a very obnoxious dude who almost doesn’t yet realize just how rude he is to others. His interactions with Canadian residents provide “Tusk” with some of its most amusing moments, and that’s especially the case when he meets a border agent played by Harley Morenstein who doesn’t hesitate to explain the differences between the United States and Canada. You can’t help but feel bad for Wallace even though he’s a bit of a jerk. I like to think this gave Long an interesting arc to play as he goes from being an egotistical prick to a helpless victim who is not exactly deserving of the fate which awaits him.

We do get a few flashbacks which show Wallace hanging out with his girlfriend Allison (Genesis Rodriguez) who is starting to accuse him of being a sellout, and she admits to missing the old Wallace as a result. Wallace, however, is more smitten with the new version of himself and doesn’t want to go back to the way he was. To say that this comes back to haunt Wallace is the understatement of the year.

Rodriguez, I have to say, has some really strong close-ups here where she holds the audience at bay with her emotional conflicts. As much as she loves Wallace, she is not blind to his misdeeds which eventually come to reflect her own. Rodriguez previously appeared in “Identity Thief” and “Casa de mi Padre,” and she looks almost completely unrecognizable here. Gloria Swanson may have told Mr. DeMille in “Sunset Boulevard” that she was ready for her close-up, but she wasn’t as ready as Rodriguez is here.

It’s also great to see Osment here whom we all remember from “The Sixth Sense.” He’s grown up now (deal with it) and gives a multilayered performance here as Teddy. Explaining why is tough because it would be giving away one too many things, but it shows that Osment has entered into an adult acting career with confidence, and I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

But let’s be honest, the real reason to see “Tusk” is Michael Parks. His performance as Howard Howe is truly a master class in acting, and he takes what could have been an utterly ridiculous character and turns him into a pitiful and truly haunted soul, not to mention an utterly terrifying one. Seeing him dive right into this role with such a giddy exuberance and spout off classic lines of literature is invigorating, and it quickly reminded me of how annoyed I was that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his work in “Red State.”

“Tusk” does, however, fall apart a bit during the second half when we get introduced to a French-Canadian detective named Guy LaPointe. His appearance comes out of nowhere, and it leads to a cameo which goes on for far too long. Now you may or may not know the identity of the actor playing LaPointe, but I’m not going to reveal it here because it honestly took me a minute or two to realize who it was. There is something to be said for an actor who disappears into their part, and this one succeeded in doing so thanks to a nice nose job. Still, the character feels out of place.

It’s best to go into “Tusk” with an open mind, and this especially goes for Kevin Smith fans. Some may say he is traveling through familiar territory here, but I don’t think he is. True, it does have a couple of convenience store clerks (both of whom will be appearing in Smith’s next movie, “Yoga Hosers”) and there are a lot of in-jokes throughout, but here he is exploring the possibility of a man’s humanity surviving a cruel and life altering event.

I also got to say, looking at this movie’s title, that I kept wondering if the Fleetwood Mac song “Tusk” would be featured here. Is it? Well, see the movie to find out.

* * * out of * * * *

A Most Violent Year

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A Most Violent Year” takes us back to the New York City of 1981 which was statistically the most dangerous year in the city’s history. It was just before crazy hairdos, Madonna, “Miami Vice,” and MTV became a reality, and it was also a time where doing business in the Big Apple became fraught with unbearable tension. Many people fled to the safety of the suburbs as immigrants arrived who were searching for the American dream, and I don’t just mean Tony Montana. In some ways, the movie’s title is misleading as this is not one filled with wall-to-wall violence. Instead, it’s more about the violence hiding beneath the surface which is just waiting to burst out as one immigrant in particular looks to start a legitimate business, but he soon discovers that the road to success is paved with devious intentions.

Oscar Isaac stars as Abel Morales, and this movie starts with him putting a down payment on a piece of land in Brooklyn where he looks to expand his small heating-oil business to a significant degree. Abel has a strong business partner in his wife, the straight out of Brooklyn Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father, a known gangster, he bought the business from. Abel makes it no secret that he intends to run this business in a legitimate fashion, but it doesn’t take long to see how incredibly difficult that will be for him.

Just as Abel’s plans look to be coming together, he finds himself dealing with competitors who are ever so eager to snag a bigger share of the market. On top of that, thieves keep attacking his drivers, stealing his fuel and selling it to illegitimate markets, and Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is investigating Abel’s accounting practices which just might reveal that he’s not the law abiding citizen he constantly claims to be. Suffice to say, this man has a lot on his plate and he now has only three days to finalize his deal on the land he wants to purchase.

What’s fascinating about “A Most Violent Year” is how all the characters are stuck in a morally gray area throughout. The difference between right and wrong is impossible to sort out because the overriding concern for Abel and Anna is to close the deal before everything falls apart and their dreams are destroyed. The movie really puts you in Abel’s shoes to where you get a full sense of his desperation to keep his head above water. What he comes to discover is that he cannot depend on others in the business community to help him with his escalating troubles. In his attempt to expand his business, he finds that he’s living in a time where it’s every man for himself.

I loved watching Isaac as he imbues Abel with such a strong aura of confidence (some may say overconfidence) as he tries to gain the trust of those who are in a position to help him. To be honest, it’s that kind of confidence I would love to exude in my own life. As “A Most Violent Year” goes on, we see that confidence start to slip ever so slightly which leads to a number of intense moments Isaac has no problem delivering on. This is the same actor who so memorably broke through into our consciousness with his performance in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and with “A Most Violent Year” he shows just how far his range as an actor goes. Even when his character becomes desperate in his attempts to make his business expansion a reality, Isaac maintains a commanding presence throughout.

But as good as Isaac is, he almost gets the movie stolen out from under him by Jessica Chastain. Her performance as Anna is a scorcher as she makes clear who the better businessman is in the family, and Chastain molds her into a Lady Macbeth-like character who is far cleverer than anyone will ever give her credit for. Knowing she’s a native of Northern California, I thought casting her as someone born and raised in Brooklyn might be a mistake. Well shame on me for thinking that because Chastain once again proves why she is a talent to be reckoned with.

“A Most Violent Year” was written and directed J.C. Chandor who also gave us “Margin Call” and “All is Lost.” All of his films to date have dealt with people caught up in crisis situations that continue to spiral out of their control, and this one proves to be every bit as enthralling. Chandor gives us a highly specific view of 1981 that never feels clichéd or obvious to the decade, and he takes us on a very tense journey with someone who may dress far better than I ever will, but who also exhibits the same anxieties and concerns we all do. His attention to character is exemplary, and he leaves on the edge of our seats in more ways than one.

It would be so nice to do business without having to go against the things we were taught to believe in, but we eventually learn business in general is never fair (and I don’t just say this because I live in Los Angeles). I found myself never quibbling too much about the things Abel ends up doing in “A Most Violent Year” because I have a very nasty feeling I wouldn’t approach his situation all that differently. Back in a time where the established way of doing business ceased to exist, I imagine I would have made the same compromises Abel is forced to make here. Whether one can live with that is a whole other story, and “A Most Violent Year” tells it in a very compelling manner that holds your attention throughout.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Brie Larson on preparing for her role in ‘Room’

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Brie Larson is best known for her performances in movies like “Short Term 12,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” “21 Jump Street” and “Trainwreck,” and she also has a singing career and released an album entitled “Finally Out of P.E.” But if you’re not familiar with whom she is, that’s alright because you won’t be able to forget her after watching her emotionally exhausting performance in Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room.” She plays Joy (a.k.a. Ma), a young woman who was kidnapped several years ago by a man who tricked her into helping him find his lost dog. Joy has since been imprisoned in that man’s garden shed located in his backyard, and she occupies it with her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay). But as time flies by, Joy becomes increasingly determined to escape the prison she and her son have been forced to grow up in, but the outside world provides them with even more challenges than they could ever have expected to endure.

Larson was at the “Room” press day held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California where she was lauded by many reporters for her brave acting. I read how, when she accepted the role of Joy, she decided to lead a more reclusive life and reduce her social interaction with others in order to better understand her character’s mindset. I asked her what that preparation specifically entailed, and her answer proved to be endlessly fascinating.

Brie Larson: “I really love the myth about my reclusive life (laughs). The words that have been used today have been so interesting. How it started was in trying to understand those two years of basic silence of being alone in this place, and I meditate so I was little familiar with trying to get to mental silence and how hard that is. And then I had some friends who had been on silent retreats and I was fascinated by the reactions because some of them could go 10 days and they do it every year and it’s just this time that they absolutely love. You’re not allowed to speak and you’re not allowed to look at anybody because that’s also seen as a form of communication. There’s no connection to the outside world. But I had other friends who couldn’t last 24 hours. They just panicked and left and so there was this sense of just sitting with yourself and imagining Ma at 17, 18 and 19 years old sitting with herself in the way most teenagers don’t. That’s a period of time where it’s all fleeting. It’s all just getting away from everything and wanting to move out and pushing away a parent. In some ways I felt that period of time to be this bizarrely mature experience and set in a horrible setting, but in a way that she has to come to terms with who she is now and this new individual that she’s become that is completely separate from her friends, from her home and from her parents, and it’s the time right before she has a child which becomes her next identity as being a mother. So for myself, it was just seeing what that mental chatter felt like and if it was something to feel that painful moments of it, to feel eureka moments. They were moments that I remembered from my childhood that I had forgotten that were so beautiful and other moments that I completely had forgotten that were more painful. And so having that time to just very simply reflect I felt became a huge part of getting to know her better. But it wasn’t like painful. I found it kind of fun to be honest. I didn’t mind it.”

Larson later won, and deservedly so, the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance, and it has since opened up a number of opportunities I can’t wait to see her take on. “Room” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

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Exclusive Interview with Matt Shakman on ‘Cut Bank’

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Matt Shakman has had quite the journey through show business so far. He started off as a child actor doing commercials, and he played the role of Graham “J.R.” Lubbock, Jr. in “Just the Ten of Us,” a spin-off of “Growing Pains.” From there he went to Yale University where he studied theater, and while there he directed several plays. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, he founded the Black Dahlia Theatre which American Theatre Magazine later called one of “a dozen young American companies you need to know.” Eventually, this led to him directing television for such shows as “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Mad Men” and “Fargo.” Now, he makes his feature film directorial debut with the thriller “Cut Bank,” a film noir along the lines of “Blood Simple.”

Cut Bank” stars Liam Hemsworth as Dwayne McLaren, a former high school football star who is desperate to escape his hometown of Cut Bank, Montana. Then one day, while filming a video for his girlfriend, he witnesses the town’s mailman Georgie Wits (Bruce Dern) being shot to death. From there a scheme is uncovered where some people look to get rich very quickly, but it all comes to spiral out of control in horrendous ways. The movie also stars John Malkovich, Billy Bob Thornton and Michael Stuhlbarg.

I got to speak with Shakman over the phone about “Cut Bank,” and he discussed what it was like working with actors like Malkovich, Thornton and Stuhlbarg, how he managed to shoot the movie on 35mm film, and he spoke of how he went from being a child actor to a theater and television director and now a film director.

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Ben Kenber: I read you approached this movie as a play more than anything else.

Matt Shakman: Yeah, I tried to cast actors who I’ve always admired and put together kind of like a rep company. In a way, I could imagine doing the movie again and everybody switching parts. They’re all so great and talented and versatile. So yeah, I definitely considered it like I was casting a play.

BK: Of all the actors you cast in this movie, John Malkovich was the first one you went to. What made you start with him?

MS: I’ve been a fan of John Malkovich onstage and onscreen, and he’s a personal hero of mine because he founded Steppenwolf. I’m a theater guy and I founded a small theater in Los Angeles, and I look up to Steppenwolf and the guys who started that. I just thought, here’s a guy who is from Southern Illinois who sort of felt like he knew this world, and yet we haven’t seen him play this small-town guy in a really long time maybe since “Places in the Heart,” and he’s brilliant in that movie. He’s come around to do great but larger than life characters in so many films. So we reached out to him and he really responded to it and he had personal experience with the town of Cut Bank. He actually worked there one summer putting himself through college. He worked on the trail crew at Glacier National Park and knew the town of Cut Bank very well, so he had a strong personal connection to it. He did a beautiful job playing a guy who really feels sort of overwhelmed by his own decency which feels really believable in that small-town world.

BK: Watching “Cut Bank” brings to mind other movies like “Blood Simple” or “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead.” When it came to making this movie, were there any clichés or cinematic tropes you were looking to avoid?

MS: You mentioned some films that I love, “Blood Simple” being one in particular. I think that blend of dark comedy and thriller stakes is something to aspire to, and we tried to do our best in that same kind of world. Also “The Last Picture Show;” the idea of the small town and the guy who wants to get out of it, that’s always been a big inspiration for me. A lot of 70’s crime thrillers were inspirations as well. We went and shot 2 perf, 35mm to give it an extra grainy look so we could evoke some of the Sergio Leone films of the 70’s as well. So, those were just some of the inspirations.

BK: I love that you got to film this movie in 35mm. Was it hard to get the opportunity to shoot in that format?

MS: Definitely. We had to make a lot of sacrifices to be able to pay for it. The cost of doing film had gone up so much because the labs were shutting down everywhere, and you couldn’t get the same deals that you would get before. Kodak was really cutting the price on film to try and keep people shooting film, but we were just on the other side of that curve where they realized uh-oh, nobody’s shooting film anymore so we need to get whatever we can get out of the people who will be using our stock. I love it. I wish I could always shoot on film. It’s really just a much better way to do it.

BK: That’s what I have been hearing from a lot of filmmakers. There are still a lot of things you can capture on film you can’t on digital film.

MS: Yeah, there’s a mystery to film that I think is important, and we were shooting a lot of days here where film has a real advantage. The argument can be made that when you should at night, having something like an Alexa can bring certain advantages in terms of less light needed and more range. But I still think that nothing really touches film.

BK: Among the performances in “Cut Bank,” one which stands out in particular is Michael Stuhlbarg’s as Derby Milton. He had the lead role in the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” but he’s almost completely unrecognizable here. How did you go about directing him?

MS: Michael’s a genius and a total chameleon, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since I saw him in “The Pillowman” (a play by Martin McDonough) on Broadway. He stole the show there and I think he’s been stealing every show everywhere he does ever since, so I was so thrilled when he agreed to come on board and be a part of “Cut Bank.” I sent him a bunch of references and pictures I had, one of which was a Chuck Close painting, which we both really liked a lot. He sent me a few references as well which inspired him, and we built this guy together through lots of phone conversations and exchanging images. Eventually we came up with what Derby looks like now which involved all sorts of trickery from wigs and fake teeth and contact lenses and coke bottle glasses and fingernails and all that. But he’s a great actor and he’s very thoughtful. He’s very smart and he goes deep into the character, and I thought he did a beautiful job.

BK: Yes, this is a character that could have easily been turned into a stereotype, but Stuhlbarg gives Derby a uniqueness I don’t seen many other actors giving the character.

MS: Definitely. Derby is a really fascinating guy even though he is the antagonist of the film. He’s probably the most reasonable person in the movie and what he ends up doing and the body count that follows him really is unnecessary if people were as reasonable to him as he is to them.

BK: It’s great how you made the town look vast, but at the same time anybody who has lived in a small town like Cut Bank can definitely relate to it feeling like a prison and wanting to break free of it.

MS: Exactly. That kind of modern western feeling of being trapped in this little frontier town with the gates of the port closed, and the idea that anything beyond those gates is terrifying is best to be ignored is what the town has to confront. By the end they are able to turn around and head into an uncertain future, but the whole experience of the film is opening up that town.

BK: What were the biggest challenges of making “Cut Bank?” It takes place in what is said to be one of the coldest places in America, but you actually filmed it in a time of year when it was exceedingly warm.

MS: We shot in Canada and Alberta and in the town of Edmonton, and that’s very close to Calgary where I shot “Fargo.” I’ve been there when it was the coldest part of the year at minus 40, and I’ve been there when it was the hottest day on record, so I’ve seen the full cycle from super cold to super-hot and it has its challenges. Certainly, there are some scenes in the movie, especially in the junkyard trailer where Bruce Dern is, where we were shooting in the middle of really, really hot summer days in a metal tin can covered in black fabric to make it look like it was nighttime. Everybody was sweating. It was pouring off of them. It was miserable and I felt terrible, and you can still see in a couple of shots in the movie how red everybody’s face is when they are in that junkyard trailer. So it did have its challenges like no air-conditioning, and you just kind of roll up your sleeves and do the best you can despite the elements. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.

BK: I got a kick out of Bruce Dern’s character here. He’s been around for a long time, but his career has gone up another notch thanks to his work in “Nebraska.” What did Bruce bring to this movie that wasn’t in the script?

MS: He’s a live wire (laughs). I loved Bruce Dern. He’s incredibly alive as a performer. He describes what he’s doing as dancing in a way, and I think he absolutely is truly that, a dancer. He’s playing with it almost like jazz as he goes and that’s wonderful. He’s never going to do the same thing twice. He does throw in some bits of improv as he goes, and a lot of wonderful things ended up in the film that were all of his own devising. He’s a bit of a mercurial, charismatic guy and he has the best stories in the world. He remembers everything that has ever happened in an illustrious way, and it’s incredible to hear. He tells stories about everyone from Hitchcock to Spielberg, etc. He’s in one of my favorites also from the 70’s with “The King of Marvin Gardens.” It’s a pleasure to get to work with somebody who’s a legend like that.

BK: Billy Bob Thornton also stars in the movie, and he’s played a lot of unforgettable small-town characters. What would you say he brought to this movie that wasn’t in the script?

MS: He really does understand this world. He’s from a small southern town which is such a different thing from the prairie town in the film, but it has the same kind of heartbeat. Billy Bob, like Malkovich, is just one of my heroes. He’s a great writer and a great director and a great actor, and I had the pleasure of working with him on “Fargo” as well. He’s just an incredibly good person and very smart, and whenever he had notes we would talk about the script and you knew you were getting notes from an Oscar-winning screenwriter. He always had tremendous things to say and just made everything better.

BK: There is a scene between Liam Hemsworth and Oliver Platt where Liam looks at Oliver and realizes that this is the person he will become like if he throws all his moral values to the wind. Would you say that’s the case?

MS: Yeah, he’s very interested to know what’s the big city is like, and here in the person of Oliver Platt is the big city. I love Oliver Platt. He’s great and he brings this incredible urbanity and charm and intelligence to it. But yeah, he represents the big outside world in all the positives and all the negatives.

BK: James Newton Howard scored this film. How did you manage to get him on board?

MS: Through his generosity. He does these just giant movies like “The Hunger Games” and “Maleficent,” and then “Nightcrawler” which is a smaller movie but certainly a big profile film. Getting him to come and do our tiny little film was entirely because he is just a lovely, generous person. I reached out to him, we had a mutual friend in common, and sent him the script and made my pitch about what the film would be about, and he really liked it and wanted to come on board. He devoted tons of time and energy to it, as much energy as he puts into his other big films, and he really cared and did a lovely job.

BK: “Cut Bank” is being distributed by A24 Films which has become a great company for independent films to get behind. What did A24 bring to this project that other distribution companies might not have brought to it?

MS: 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.

BK: How much time did you have to shoot “Cut Bank” in?

MS: 27 days for “Cut Bank,” which is fast for a movie that is 93 minutes long, so we were jamming and going quickly. I thought this would be a little more luxurious compared to my TV days as TV is famous for being quick, and I was wrong. Doing an independent film is actually faster than doing TV. We were out there shooting outside of Edmonton and small towns. We were building our entire world from the ground up and going into practical locations which added extra challenges, so time was not a commodity we had a lot of. We had to hustle and go as fast as we could to try and get it all done in time. There was a lot of different locations, there was a lot of night work, and we were shooting at the time of year when the night is the shortest. We only had about four hours of darkness every night so we had to be really careful about how we structured everything, and we ended up shooting all night long in order to have the time to shoot all the night stuff.

BK: Does working that fast help you creatively?

MS: It can. Necessity is the mother of invention. It’s true that when you’re forced to compromise, you sometimes end up with a solution which is better than what you were trying to accomplish to begin with. Everybody bonds together and tries to get everything done. You’ve got a short amount of time so everybody knows it’s game time, and that brings out the best in everybody.

BK: You started out as a child actor. How would you say you evolved from being a child actor to a director?

MS: It was definitely part of my life when I was young, and I had some experience being on the other side of the camera and understood about hitting marks and what the actor’s process was like. But then I left that behind and went off to school and had a normal experience in college and did a lot of theater and found my way to theater directing. My path was more direct from theater to directing plays to directing television and to directing film than really from the acting experience, but I’m really grateful to have had that background and the experience of being an actor because it helps. When speaking to actors, I understand what they are going through and what their process is like.

I want to thank Matt Shakman for taking the time to talk with me about “Cut Bank” and his career. “Cut Bank” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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