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Bad Day for the Cut (2017): Review, part 1

Here is part one of my two-part review of Chris Baugh's excellent movie, Bad Day for the Cut (2017). It will summarize the film, as well as examine its nonchalant delivery and nondescript hero (spoilers); part two shall take it further, explaining why the movie is so visually and thematically impactful—not just holding up after repeat viewings, but becoming more effective with each.

Everyone knows that Conan the Barbarian is brave; no one will question his ability to get up after being being pinned to the Tree of Woe and continue his quest for revenge. The man looks built for the role. Not just his muscles, but the look in his eyes. Or Angel Eyes from Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966): to gaze into the hungry stare of Lee Van Cleef is see greed itself—unquestioned because it's just damn so implacable. In stories like these, no one doubts what these men are capable of. On the other hand, Baugh's movie is effectively a tale of revenge, from an odd source—one we do doubt. Our doubt, of the hero, is what makes Bad Day for the Cut so fun; it's where the movie supplies most of its laughs, suspense and drama.


The protagonist, an Irish farmer called Donal, is middle-aged. His geriatric, placid mother lives under his watch. His dedication towards her becomes the talk of the village, to the point that he can't go to the local pub without being mocked for it. At the same time, his mother scolds him for being too solicitous. He's effectively trapped, damned either way. Regardless, he simply goes about his business, his obedience making him what he is. It's only later that we see just how resourceful it's made him, when the chips are down.

One night while Donal is out in the barn, he emerges in time to witness "a fancy kind of boy" (a man in a suit) leaving the house, with another person in the car. They drive off. Inside the house, Donal finds his mother dead, murdered. Shortly after that, Donal is paid a visit by a couple of hitmen, who try to murder him in his own barn. Instead of shooting him, they opt to hang him, to make it look like a suicide. Luckily for him, the newbie makes the noose too long. So when Donal steps off the chair, he lands uneventfully on his feet. The two killers bicker, and Donal capitalizes, leaving the smarter of the two dead; the weaker, under his power.

Life as a farmer is hard work, in and of itself, and while it hasn't made Donal flashy in terms of his heroics, it has made him undeniably effective. There's nothing far-fetched about what he does, here. He doesn't fend off scores of heavily-trained adversaries, armed to the teeth; he catches one or two with their pants down, because they're either not expecting him, or grossly underestimate him. And when he has them in his sights, he treats them like another chore to finish. Perhaps in another life he'd have made a good hitman, himself. In any case, Bad Day for the Cut is a movie about a simple, unpretentious avenger whose level of revenge is so basic it doesn't even enter the minds of the criminals he's dealing with. I was very much reminded of Brian Helgeland's Payback (1999), where Porter, played by Mel Gibson, went after the Syndicate ("They're the Outfit now, honey."). No one had any idea who he was, and what he was asking for was beneath their contempt. On one hand, it worked to his advantage; on the other, it didn't.


The same is true for Donal. He's straightforward, unassuming and basic, improvising his revenge the same way he might his less-than-stellar cooking: Early on, his ketchup bottle runs dry during breakfast. He glances over at the sink before unscrewing the cap and filling the bottle partway with water. He gives it a good shake before squirting the now-watery contents all over what's left of his breakfast. It might not be gourmet, but it gets the job done. Likewise, when Donal blithely works his way up the local crime syndicate's chain of command, he kidnaps a local enforcer. With a camper minivan, he then drives him out to the middle of nowhere. There, the man refuses to talk, so Donal glances over at his breakfast: a tin of beans simmering on the stovetop. Without a second thought, he takes the pan and plants it on the man's forehead, burning him.

This move is done so casually it takes you off guard; on some level we're expecting theatricality with torture, except Donal has none. He just does it, and his choice of tools are hilariously mundane and congruous. Seeing the man taken down a notch is satisfying as well, as is his having to explain to his boss just how awkwardly he's been tortured ("He held a tin of beans to me head!"). Because Donal's tools are so untheatrical, we can never quite guess what he'll pick. It'd be akin to Butch, in Pulp Fiction (1995), rummaging through Zed's shop, passing over the obvious items—the hammer, bat, chainsaw and katana—in favor of a random ball-point pen Zed might have used to do his daily invoices. Anyone can pick up a machine gun; it's big, deadly and obvious. It's a lot more fun to see someone like Jason Bourne fend off a rogue agent with nothing but a rolled-up magazine grabbed off the table. It's even more fun to see hero who is equally unpretentious—not good-looking like Matt Damon, but bearded, short, and unremarkable. When he kicks your ass, it really feels like it, because you simply didn't see it coming.

At the same time, Donal isn't a trained killer, and the movie wisely supplies us with several wake-up calls—moments that show us just how painfully out-of-depth Donal really is. One notable example: a chagrined enforcer returns to even the score (earlier, Donal had locked him in a closet, before kidnapping his boss). Donal and he tussle, and it's a gorgeous row if ever there were one. Here, Donal no longer has the advantage, and while he initially gives as good as he gets, it soon becomes clear he's met his match. The man beats him soundly and he retreats, reeling in pain. Soon, he's losing the fight, crawling away and bleeding from multiple wounds. Without mercy, the man clambers aboard and proceeds to pummel him senseless. Things are going from bad to worse, until a shot rings out. The gangster collapses, stone dead. Behind him stands a girl, holding a pistol. She's just saved Donal's life.

This scene works as well because it shows Donal's luck running out. He's taken down a notch, as every hero always is. The key with such moments is to make the audience think the hero is screwed, usually by isolating him. Having a group of empowered agents on both sides will kill the suspense and turn the whole ordeal into a melee (as it so often does, in superhero movies). You can show other characters throughout the exchange, but only if they're helpless. Think Alien (1979): Parker and Lambert are both onscreen, but equally powerless against the monster despite their differences in strength and size. Or, in Back to the Future (1985), when Biff tortures George. Lorraine leaps on his back, but Biff pushes her off. George clearly has to handle the bigger man on his own, and that's where the suspense comes from: he's a coward and we're not sure he can win.


I'll explain this concept, and others, in further detail, in part two.






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