Tribeca 2023 Review: Blood for Dust

In the opening scene of Rod Blackhurst’s Blood for Dust, we see an image of what appears to be a happy family. A former Marine is pictured with his wife and two kids in a beautiful portrait. Seconds after this establishing shot, a loud bang is heard, and blood splatters across the picture. The camera pulls back to the former Marine, having taken his own life once he realizes a deal has gone wrong. Enter two other characters, unknown to the viewer at this point, who are both shocked and upset about their friend killing himself.

It’s a startling way to begin a movie, and it also creates a level of intrigue and uncertainty for the viewer early on as they try to figure out how that scene plays into the movie. The screenplay by Blackhurst and David Ebeltoft makes the connection later after the movie settles into its plot. Once it becomes clearer on the purpose of that scene, the film then sets off on a path that is familiar territory for this genre, but it’s also sturdily directed and headlined by a strong ensemble cast.

The criminally underrated Scoot McNairy gets a rare lead role as Cliff, a defibrillator salesman who is struggling in every aspect of his life. He’s barely making ends meet, as he travels throughout the Western United States, namely Montana and Wyoming, and his marriage to Amy (Nora Zehetner) is hanging on by a thread.

We see that the two have had some struggles in the past, but the movie only gives us little hints here and there as the story goes along. The decision to keep the reason(s) for their struggles hidden, outside of the obvious financial woes that take center stage, is a smart move by Blackhurst and Ebeltoft, and it allows the audience to become more absorbed in the current situation.

McNairy’s career has mainly consisted of portraying characters to whom audiences can easily relate. With Blood for Dust, he gives an effortless portrayal of the hopeless and desperate husband, willing to do anything to make things right in his life no matter the cost. It’s surefire proof of his talent, and another reason for studios to give him more main roles.

It’s not just McNairy who excels here. Game of Thrones alum Kit Harington goes against type as Ricky, a sleazy criminal from Cliff’s past. Harington’s handlebar mustache and greasy get-up make him nearly unrecognizable at first, and the performance he gives is unlike anything he’s ever done before. Ricky is manipulative and untrustworthy, and if he doesn’t get what he’s looking for, he could explode at a moment’s notice. It’s a fantastic performance from Harington.

The film’s opening scene, as described in the beginning paragraph, showed the two entering the room after the deal went south. After that moment, both Ricky and Cliff went in different directions in life. Now that Ricky has reentered Cliff’s life, he proposes a deal that will get Cliff back on track financially. Of course, that deal involves running drugs and guns for a cartel leader name John (an exceptionally good Josh Lucas). With nowhere else to go, Cliff accepts the job, despite the risks that he faces.

Blood for Dust is what may result if the Coen brothers turned Death of a Salesman into a ’90s-era crime drama in the desert. It’s a well-crafted thriller with some unexpected twists and incredibly filmed shootout scenes. There are some moments that almost seem to borrow too heavily from other works, but Blackhurst’s second feature film is intriguing and worth seeking out, especially for the neo-western crowd.

[Editor’s note: Read David’s interview with filmmaker Rod Blackhurst.]

David Wangberg

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