Directed by Rod Blackhurst and written by David Ebeltoft (from a story by both of them), Blood For Dust follows down-on-his-luck salesman Cliff (Scoot McNairy). He wants to provide for his wife, Amy (Nora Zehetner), and family, but sales have been down, meaning little commission is coming in. This downturn couldn’t come at a worse time, as Cliff and Amy’s son has just been diagnosed with cancer. But, an old friend named Ricky (Kit Harrington) offers Cliff a chance to make some real money. The catch is their wares for sale aren’t strictly legal.
Cliff, exhausted from chasing the elusive “American Dream,” decides to get in on this action and finally have a nest egg. The salesman’s hairs immediately start tingling as their boss, John (Josh Lucas), is unscrupulous and mad, a dangerous combination. Soon, Cliff is driving his Oldsmobile on the same roads as always, using the same payphones to check in with home, but he now realizes how much danger lurks at every darkened intersection and seedy hotel. Will Cliff achieve his dreams, or will the underworld swallow him like so many others?
While moments of intense violence punctuate Blood For Dust, the film is more of a slow-burn character study than an explosive gun-running action story. In that regard, fans of bombastic Michael Bay movies will be bored. But for cinephiles, Blackhurst’s flick brings to mind the nail-biting Cohen brothers’ title Blood Simple. Cliff is an intriguing protagonist, and it is easy to see how his perceived failure as the breadwinner eats him up. But what makes this morality tale all the more interesting is that the protagonist is not an ideal-minded, noble person. He wants easy money and will do almost anything for it.
“…offers Cliff a chance to make some real money. The catch is their wares for sale aren’t strictly legal.”
The dynamic between Cliff and Ricky is compelling. Ricky makes no bones about being sleazy but knows he’s smooth enough to get away with it (think Ben Foster’s character in the stunning Hell Or High Water). Cliff wants to be a good person but often fails at that. Put these two into a tense situation and watch the metaphorical sparks fly. It certainly helps that McNairy and Harrington are excellent in their respective roles. The former brings a steadfast sensibility to Cliff, making his need to have money palpable. Harrington exudes sleaze and charm in equal measure. Zehetner doesn’t have much screen time, but she is good and reliable as ever. But it is Josh Lucas, overacting like a cocaine-fueled jackrabbit, who steals the show. He’s so fun, scary, insane, and compelling at the same time that an entire spin-off about John would be most welcome.
But it is the themes Blood For Dust is dealing with that truly make this stand out. Cliff’s previous employer saw a scam pulled, which left money missing, and a person committed suicide. Everyone at that company knew Cliff was somehow involved, though there was little to no evidence to pin on him. So, this white, straight guy gets away with it scot-free. Ebeltoft deftly deals with double standards such as this, showcased when Cliff visits the widow of his former colleague. She and her kids have fallen on hard times, and while the lead is sympathetic, his need for money may trump the distress he’s put this family through.
Blood For Dust is a paced story, doling out information only when necessary. The filmmakers are more interested in observing Cliff in whatever predicament he’s currently facing. But, the screenplay is tightly wound and absorbing, and character motivations make total sense throughout. Add the big themes of responsibility and the impressive cast to the mix, and one gets an engaging drama with moments of sheer brutality.