That first sight of a grain elevator in a crime film signals to us that no matter how dark and bloody things turn, the violence is going to have a funny edge. It’s “The Fargo Effect,” and even if Cut Bank lacks the “youbetchas,” it’s in full force here.
A Montana tale filmed in Canada with Australian stars, it might have been inspired by the Hank Williams Jr. song warbled over the closing credits. It’s got conspiracy and murder, perversion and provincialism, all packed into 93 compact minutes, a well-cast and intricately plotted thriller that only comes undone at the out-of-kilter coda.
Dwayne (Liam Hemsworth) dreams of escaping the tiny town with his pretty blond girlfriend Cassandra (Teresa Palmer). He’s videotaping her doing a promotional video about “where the Rockies meet the Plains” out in a canola field when, in the distance, the camera captures a murder. Somebody shot the postman (Bruce Dern).
The tape makes the mild-mannered sheriff (John Malkovich) throw up at “the most disappointing day of my life,” the “first murder” that town has ever had.
It makes the Postal Service send an inspector (Oliver Platt) from D.C. to reward Dwayne for his evidence.
It makes Cassandra’s daddy (Billy Bob Thornton) suspicious. And it makes the town recluse (Michael Stuhlbarg of “A Serious Man”) come out of hiding, peering behind coke-bottle lenses as he asks “Where’s my parcel?,” the one the postman was supposed to deliver.
The death, it quickly turns out, was faked. And the first seriously funny twist in this Matt It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Shakman film is that the seemingly slow-witted recluse is both more motivated and more sure-handed at investigating the crime than the sheriff. Always underestimated, stammering as he ignores everyone’s “I thought you were dead” remarks, he will certainly get to the bottom of this, and quickly.
Shakman cast this well, so well he can afford to waste a good actor like Oliver Platt on a tiny role as a careless, Bluetooth-addicted Fed and Thornton on a couple of simple exposition scenes. Hemsworth and Palmer may center the film, but Malkovich, Stuhlbarg and Dern carry it with a wry ear for small town whimsy, wistfulness and eccentricity.
The ending is where Shakman loses his nerve and whole affair swings wide of the mark. But this dark “Fargo Lite” farce makes us sit up, take notice and smile, or at least smirk, right up until that “Hey, wait a minute” finale.
Exclusive: Look Cinemas, Dallas
Director: Matt Shakman
Cast: Liam Hemsworth, Teresa Palmer, Bruce Dern, John Malkovich, Billy Bob Thornton, Michael Stuhlbarg
Rated: R (violence, strong language)
Running time: 93 min.