Review: Blood for Dust Offers a Dark and Thoughtful Narrative About Desperation and the Lost American Dream

A few years ago, director Rod Blackhurst co-directed a documentary called Amanda Knox that I remember thinking was quite impressive. So when I heard he was taking on a crime drama of some sort, I was hoping that he brought some of his knack for tension and in-depth storytelling to a feature film. Thankfully, that pretty much what he’s done with Blood for Dust, a work that combines some of the more obvious and violent traits of older Coen Brothers offerings with the deeper introspection of works like Death of a Salesman. One of the most underrated and deeply talented actors working today, Scoot McNairy plays Cliff, a salesman in the American Northwest who is struggling financially in part because he was involved in some crooking dealings years earlier. These dealings haunt him to this day and cost him work, or at least the kind that pays enough to keep his family afloat.

His wife Amy (Nora Zehetner, The Right Stuff series) knows that things will work themselves out, even though they have a sick child living full time in a hospital. He’s not home often, but he tries to make it home long enough to go to church and visit his likely dying kid. After losing yet another job, Cliff runs into an old colleague who nearly got him in trouble. Kit Harrington plays Ricky, who seems like the kind of guy who's looking for trouble but prides himself on avoiding it. He offers Cliff work that is clearly not legal, and he’s just desperate enough to finally accept what turns out to be running drugs from one state to another and collecting the money for the trip back. His unassuming looks and beat-up car make him the least likely guy to do this sort of work, and that’s exactly what the drug boss, John (Josh Lucas), is counting on.

Naturally, on Cliff’s first run, he’s forced to take a passenger, someone in John’s operation named Slim (Ethan Suplee), just to make sure everything goes smoothly. Which of course, it doesn’t. The entire enterprise forces Cliff to take stock of his life, his long-held belief in the American Dream, and the unearned trust that his wife has in him and their marriage. At one point, we meet the widow of Cliff’s ex-partner (Amber Rose Mason); the man committed suicide over the aforementioned bad dealings, all the while Cliff was sleeping with the man’s wife. The two couples used to be close, and when Amy finds out Cliff is going to be driving near her house, she encourages her to stop by and say hello, not knowing the woman was once her husband’s mistress.

As written (by David Ebeltoft), Cliff is the perfect synthesis of tightly wound anxiety with a strange professionalism when it comes to criminal activity. He thinks of everything necessary to cover his tracks, even when things go sideways and no one else is considering consequences or paper trails. The movie doesn’t spare us the violence of this lifestyle, and there are moments in Blood for Dust where I wanted to just put my head down and wait for the bullets to stop flying so I could see who was still breathing. In a great example of playing against character, Harrington is terrifying as Ricky, a man lost in the lifestyle and greedy for more, thinking he’s bulletproof because he’s lasted as long as he has.

The film is thoughtful and dark, the performances are controlled and frequently sinister, and the direction is patient and well executed. Director Blackhurst clearly has an eye for including nice touches to make his characters feel authentic and situations believable, selectings town and cities in a part of the country where they all look the same and the weather is always cold and snowy. The more I consider Blood for Dust, the more I’m eager to revisit it. It’s certainly one of the more unexpected surprises in recent memory.

The film is now playing in theaters and is available digitally.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.