The Movie Waffler Tribeca Film Festival 2023 Review - BLOOD FOR DUST | The Movie Waffler

Tribeca Film Festival 2023 Review - BLOOD FOR DUST

Tribeca Film Festival 2023 Review - BLOOD FOR DUST
A desperate salesman accepts a risky job from an old co-worker.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Rod Blackhurst

Starring: Scoot McNairy, Kit Harington, Josh Lucas, Stephen Dorff, Ethan Suplee, Nora Zehetner, Amber Rose Mason

Blood For Dust poster

The thriller genre is overstuffed with tales of desperate men landing themselves in trouble after following the promise of making some fast and easy money. Director Rod Blackhurst's Blood for Dust doesn't pull up any trees in the film noir forest in terms of its plot, but it keeps us gripped with some fine performances and skilful storytelling that makes the familiar nonetheless intriguing.

In a recent interview, Steven Soderbergh spoke of how reluctant many filmmakers are to set their films in the present day due to how the conveniences of modern technology are largely anathema to cinematic storytelling. That's a particular problem in the crime thriller, and likely why Blackhurst and his co-writer David Ebeltoft have opted to set theirs in the early '90s. It allows for their protagonist to live a life that's rapidly disappearing in today's world, that of the travelling salesman.

Blood for Dust review

Cliff (Scoot McNairy) spends his days travelling up and down the snow-lined roads of Montana, Dakota and Wyoming, flogging defibrillators to various businesses. It's clear that he and his wife, Amy (Nora Zehetner), are going through a difficult time, with hints of a familial tragedy that Cliff can't quite process. We get the impression that Cliff's job conveniently allows him to spend time away from Amy, thus avoiding having to deal with whatever troubles appear to be haunting the couple.

When Cliff loses his job due to his boss's discovery of his past involvement in some dodgy dealings that ended with the suicide of a co-worker (detailed in the film's gory opening tableau), Cliff desperately seeks work only to find his past has left him unemployable. That's until what seems like a chance encounter with Ricky (Kit Harington), a cocky former co-worker who was also involved in Cliff's scam. Ricky offers Cliff a way to make some easy money. All he has to do is transport drugs along the routes he's already familiar with. As his face is well known in these areas, he's unlikely to attract unwanted attention, and it doesn't hurt that he's an unassuming white guy in a family station wagon. What could go wrong?

Of course, it all goes wrong, and soon Cliff is regretting his decision while trying to find a way to save his skin. There are various twists along the way, but none of them are particularly surprising if you're familiar with the beats of film noir. Those twists and turns may well be enough for some viewers, but Blood for Dust works best as a moody character study. The setting of America's frozen north is inherently cinematic and it was often used by '90s crime thrillers (Fargo, A Simple Plan et al) in similar fashion to how the deserts of the SouthWest were so popular in the '80s. Taking noir from its established setting of the city into wide open landscapes with big skies adds a certain element of paranoia. Blackhurst exploits this nicely by having Cliff accompanied on his route by a taciturn mobster (Ethan Suplee) who could easily kill him and dump his body in the middle of nowhere. Plus there's a van that seems to be suspiciously following them, leading to one of the film's most tense sequences. Blackhurst, a graduate of the recent school of true crime documentaries, assembles his film in a very patient, very classical manner that gives it the appearance of a lost John Dahl movie from the early '90s. This downplayed approach makes the sudden eruptions of violence all the more impactful.

Blood for Dust review

Perhaps what's most interesting about Blood for Dust is how it subverts the femme fatale trope. Harington's Ricky occupies that role, seducing Cliff not with sex but with the promise of financial stability. It's a sign of how things have changed for men in recent times, that simply clearing bills is now more alluring than the flesh of some buxom temptress. Harington is surprisingly good here, and he plays the role with something of a homoerotic frisson, like Rob Lowe in Curtis Hanson's Bad Influence. Cliff grows increasingly paranoid about Ricky's intentions towards him, but Harington plays it in an ambiguously chilling way that causes us to ask why he might prefer to keep Cliff alive. Harington gets the showy homme fatale role, but it's McNairy who anchors the film. Since his breakout turn in Gareth Edwards' Monsters he's struggled to find a niche, but with his hang dog expression and simultaneous conveyance of resignation and exasperation, McNairy makes for the perfect put-upon noir protagonist.

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