By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
There’s a moment in Blood for Dust when Kit Harington’s character asks Scoot McNairy’s character what his hardest sale was. In another movie, this conversation would see the two traveling salesmen trade stories about difficult products they somehow sold to reluctant customers. Instead, Harington’s character relays that the hardest sale he ever made was lying to a family member about the physical abuse he received from another family member.
It’s dark and contemplative moments like this that populate Blood for Dust, a new crime thriller from director Rod Blackhurst and screenwriter David Ebeltoft premiering at this year’s Tribeca Festival. The film follows Cliff (played by Scott McNairy), a traveling salesman with a shady past who is struggling to provide for his family. Cliff is soon propositioned by an old friend Ricky (played by Kit Harington) to collaborate with a cartel leader (played by Josh Lucas) to run drugs and guns across state lines. Out of desperation, Cliff takes the job and soon finds himself in grave danger.
Blood for Dust is the kind of understated, slow-burn crime thriller that takes a straightforward premise and uses it to tell an intense and dark story, not dissimilar from 2012’s Killing Them Softly. It’s a patient film, one that isn’t in a hurry to get to the violence and disarray of the final act, but, instead, more interested in diving into the psyche of two troubled and psychologically complex men.
Scoot McNairy is an empathic lead despite not really ever doing anything to warrant the audience’s support. McNairy’s Cliff is subdued and affected by trauma while seemingly unable to successfully lead a legitimate life. Kit Harington, meanwhile, adopts an onscreen persona that is a stark (pun intended) divergence from his Game of Thrones character that put him on the map. Sporting a mustache, white shirt, and leather jacket that make him look like a Freddie Mercury cosplayer, in less capable hands, Ricky would have descended into unintentionally comedic territory, but thankfully this is not the case. Harrington is equal parts charismatic and menacing and the movie certainly improves when his role becomes more sizable in its second half.
McNairy and Harington play seedy characters doing seedy things living in a seedy world. Set in 1990s middle America in grimy motels and strip clubs, empty houses, and snowy landscapes, the world of Blood for Dust is a world that feels uncomfortably real and perpetually threatening. The closest atmospheric and tonal comparison is probably Joe Carnahan’s excellent and underappreciated Narc.
Adding to this palpable atmosphere is the storytelling decision to give the lead characters significant, shady backstories that occur off-screen prior to the start of the film’s narrative. After opening with a jarring suicide by shotgun in the absence of all explanation and context, Blood for Dust picks up with McNairy’s character Cliff traveling across the U.S. to sell defibrillators to uninterested companies. It’s only through select conversations with other characters that information about Cliff’s background and a botched con job are revealed. This storytelling approach has the potential to alienate audiences, but a lean script from David Ebeltoft means the story never becomes convoluted or unapproachable. In turn, this allows for plenty of room to soak up the disturbing atmosphere and follow the downward trajectory of these desperate characters.
Initial empathy for McNairy’s character, his intriguing backstory, and the seedy atmosphere carry the film forward in an engaging manner. An effective second act twist leads to a more considerable role for Harrington and the beginning of a cat-and-mouse game as McNairy’s Cliff fluctuates from trusting to fearing Harrington’s Ricky. Unfortunately, the plot begins to fizzle out after this halfway point. There’s a quality movie here buried under a meandering and flat second half, highlighting a real missed opportunity given the hook of the film’s first half.
A strength of the film, however, is its focus on the business of sales and the ways in which this work parallels the kind of criminal activity the two leads find themselves engaged in. There’s a number of interesting conversations about the art of the deal, what it takes to earn a sale, and the desperation salesmen feel, all of which nicely complement the film’s more insidious narrative elements.
Blood for Dust is a crime thriller from director Rod Blackhurst starring Scoot McNairy and Kit Harington premiering at this year’s Tribeca Festival. A deeply atmospheric and seedy film, Blood for Dust evokes the likes of Narc and Killing Them Softly in featuring a straightforward story where danger is around every corner. McNairy and Harington are fantastic as the two leads, playing off a script in which significant backstory occurs off-screen before the events of the film. The palpable atmosphere only goes so far, however, as the film loses momentum after an effective second act twist. What is left is a slow-burn, methodical thriller with great performances and a compelling atmosphere that suffers from some narrative shortcomings.