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Bad Day for the Cut (2017): Review, part 2

Here is part two of my two-part review of Chris Baugh's excellent movie, Bad Day for the Cut (2017). 

In part one, I was describing how Donal is grappling with a gangster whose stronger and faster than he. At the last second, he's saved by some unexpected help. When he is, we're meant to sigh in relief, having thought him a goner. It's precisely because the scene was so dire that made it equally enjoyable.

I already explained one way to make a situation seem dire: to show the "help" as helpless. Another way to do it is to hide the help, outright. In Blade Runner (1982), Rachel saves Deckard, but only at the last possible second. Until that point, Leon has Deckard on the hip, telling him "Wake up. Time to die!" Then, he starts to push in his eyeballs.

Before he can, a loud bang thunders and Leon's forehead explodes. Behind him, Rachel is shown, holding Deckard's pistol. The entire time, Ridley kept her out of the shot, so that we truly believed it was just Deckard versus Leon. Or, in The Terminator (1984), Sarah Conor is lying on the floor of the Tech-Noir venue. She's trapped under the body of a fallen woman and cannot escape. The terminator stands over her, quickly reloading its weapon. As it does, it chambers a round before pointing the gun at Sarah; the tension rises with the dissonant string crescendo, and it seems like her luck's run out, at last. However, at the last second, Kyle leaps out from the shadows, blasting the terminator repeatedly with his shotgun, sending the futuristic assassin flying out of the neon-lit discotheque.

Like these movies, Bad Day for the Cut understands how to generate suspense—throughout each and every scene, not just the one described, earlier. It's very nicely shot throughout, making the action, onscreen, feel picturesque without sacrificing its undeniable momentum. The minimal gunplay is also visually convincing and doesn't suffer from a need to have everything onscreen, at once. This is largely thanks to cross cutting. With it, Baugh avoids having to resort to shoddy postproduction effects that take the viewer out of the experience.

I remember criticizing Netflix's Godless (2017) or Noah Hawley's Fargo (2014) for wanting to capture all of the violence onscreen at once, requiring the makers to take precautions: adding much of the gunplay in post-production. For my review of Hawley's Fargo, I actually revisited the original 1996 film because I thought the Coen brothers didn't resort to the same postproduction effects, themselves. But, sure enough, they do. When Gaear Grimsrud shoots the highway patrolman in the head, the three actors—Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare and the third man—are all in the shot, together. Likewise, the weapon is fired at point-blank range, right next to the actor's head. This is obviously dangerous and practically necessitates postproduction visual effects.

Contrary to what you might think, blanks are not perfectly safe. In any situation where a gun is fired, it uses blanks, and blanks can kill an actor. Case in point, actors Jon-Erik Hexum or Brandon Lee were both killed by blanks: Hexum died on the set of the CBS television series Cover Up (1984) after pointing a pistol armed with blanks at his head and pulling the trigger. Lee died following an accident on the set of The Crow (1994): another actor, Michael Masse, had fired a blank round at Lee. However, because the weapon wasn't cleaned properly, bits of the blank entered Lee's chest and exited his back, mortally wounding him.

In any case, this is how the Coens wanted to shoot their scene (so to speak). It evokes a sense of danger. Now look closely at Gaear's semi-automatic pistol: when fired, its slide doesn't rack back, nor does an empty shell ejected from the feed port; there is a muzzle flash, and smoke, but its digital. It might seem out of place in a 1996 Coen brother's film, but the fact of the matter is, such tricks are hardly new. The Coens also used in their 2010 remake of True Grit, when Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges, reaches across a table and shoots a surly bandit point-blank in the face. Again, the individual elements—the bang, the flash, and the smoke—are there. But the eye can tell the difference, especially on repeat viewings. If something looks real, it will continue to look real; if not, it generally won't age well.

One way around this aging problem is to keep things real. One approach is to film actors shooting weapons when they aren't actually pointed at anyone, and then cross cut. For example, actors in Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead (2004) discharge pistols and shotguns in brilliant slow-motion. Cameras reliably capture muzzle flashes and smoke, before cutting to the zombies on the receiving end. They are "shot" because the footage is spliced together to give the appearance of such. In reality there's no one on the other end of the barrel when the gun is fired... unless, like Hawley or the Coens, you want everything in the same shot.

The point is, Baugh doesn't want everything in the same shot. Nothing feels crowded, and everything looks real because he shoots it in such a way as to avoid having to resort to postproduction visual effects that cheapen the overall experience. You can watch Bad Day for the Cut  now or in a hundred years, and it will still look as real. It's visually-impressive, consistent, and well-edited; the acting is rock-solid, and the drama feels impactful in ways you don't see coming. In other words, it starts off as a revenge story and transforms into something else.

The one character who doesn't change is the hero; what we see is what we get. What does change is how we feel for him. The real showcase is how someone so transparent and down to earth can still surprise us, like a middle-aged, Irish hobbit. How we feel about what we see shifts from pity to approval and back to pity (albeit a much different kind than before). Meanwhile, just about everyone else is opaque, layered. They appear as one thing before they are revealed as something else. In the end, we're back where we started, except with a new pair of eyes. Likewise, the ending is wonderful in that it feels as grounded as the hero. There's nothing centric about the protagonist or his goals, and when he accomplishes them the movie keeps going. Nothing ends, and the sweet taste of victory turns to ashes.

If this sounds like a downer, it is; but everything leading up to it is hilarious, unexpected, and expertly-captured. Baugh toys with our perceptions, hiding the biggest surprises in plain sight. One could easily watch it twice and not catch everything. This isn't so much because the movie is cryptic; what we're shown is plain enough. Rather, it's how the movie gradually reveals its secrets to us that makes the whole ordeal so damn engaging. For me, once I assembled the puzzle, I realized I had to watch it again—much in the same fashion as John Sayles's Lone Star (1996). The fact remains, Bad Day for the Cut was so well-made, I didn't even care.


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