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Sundance Film Review: ‘Bad Day for the Cut’

Variety logo Variety 1/25/2017 Dennis Harvey
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A pile of corpses paves the way to revenge for a seemingly mild-mannered but resourceful-when-roused protagonist in “Bad Day for the Cut.” Chris Baugh’s accomplished debut feature manages to develop its own distinct flavor while fitting snugly into the general tradition of latter-day U.K. gangster pics, with their rueful humor, colorful characters and realistically nasty violence. This Northern Ireland-set thriller doesn’t quite rank with the most memorable of that ilk, but it has sufficient genre appeal to attract some sales and attention around the globe.

Graying middle-aged Donal (Nigel O’Neill) still lives at home on a small farm with his increasingly frail mother (Stella McCusker), forging a limited social life at the local pub and repairing cars on the side. He seems content enough, yet there’s a sense of life having passed him by that’s tweaked when, in exchange for some auto work, he’s given an old camper van that he fixes up. Perhaps he’ll take it out for a wee adventure some day soon.

He soon gets much more excitement than he’d wanted when he awakes one night in a beery haze to find his mother dead in the parlor, the victim of an apparent home-invasion robbery. After the funeral, he’s ambushed by two masked toughs who bungle staging his “suicide.” He kills one and takes the other captive, discovering his prisoner, Bartosz (Jozef Pawloski) is a scared young man who’d been blackmailed into the attacks to protect his sister (Anna Prochniak), who’s being held by human traffickers. The two drive to Belfast, hoping to save the girl and avenge mum’s death in one fell swoop.

Of course, that plan grows a lot more complicated when they must fend off a rogue’s gallery of criminal-syndicate thugs who stand between them and the chief of the operation, lethally ruthless Frankie (Susan Lynch). It turns out the seemingly arbitrary slaying of Donal’s ma was no accident, having grown from roots that go back to 1970s IRA violence and other shared family secrets.

The film is at its best when the s–t first hits the fan, as burly, unworldly Donal’s surprisingly (though not quite preposterously) nimble responses to a series of not-incredibly bright enforcers leaves each of the attackers humiliated and/or dead. (There’s a running gag of sorts in his brutally effective use of average household items, including an iron and a cooking pot, to dispatch the bad guys.) These events are at once messily violent and bemusedly, wryly low-key. When Donal approaches the long-buried reasons for this morass, “Bad Day” (which actually is set over several days) loses some inspiration, as it aims for a degree of tragedy it hasn’t acquired the emotional heft to support.

Baugh gets sharp performances from a generally experienced cast, though the normally expert Lynch doesn’t quite have the malevolent edge to render her dragon-lady as fearsome as she should be. Ryan Kernaghan’s clean, handsome widescreen lensing is the outstanding element in a solidly assembled film, in which the most notable musical backing consists of various country and folk oldies that reflect generally nondescript nice-guy Donal’s personal tastes. Some viewers may wish for subtitles clarifying the often heavily accented dialogue.

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