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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Director Report Card: Lucky McKee (2017)

7. Blood Money

Over the years, I've sung the praises of Lucky McKee quite a bit. “May” is one of my favorite movies and I recommend it whenever possible. “The Woman” is a brutal, powerful piece of subversive horror. I've even grown to like “The Woods” over the years, despite its flaws. But the director's last few films have disappointed me. McKee's remake of his own “All Cheerleaders Die” tried to do too many things. His “Tales of Halloween” segment struck me as forced. When it was announced that his next movie would be a direct-to-video thriller starring John Cusack, I didn't get my expectations up very high. “Blood Money” is still not McKee operating at maximum power but, let's give credit where credit is due, it was better than I expected.

Every year, three friends meet in the woods to go rafting, hiking, and camping. Lynn, Victor and Jeff have been friends since high school. Lynn and Victor had a romance many years ago, which Vic still has regrets about. Now Jeff and Lynn have begun dating, which they're attempting to keep a secret from their third friend. Meanwhile, pilot Miller has stolen several million dollars from his airline. After a parachute-assisted escape, his bags of cash have disappeared in the woods. The trio of friends discover the bags, Lynn deciding to take them for herself. But Miller is soon on their trail.

Another reason while I had muted expectations for “Blood Money” was because of its generic title. Though a slight step-up from the film's working title - “Misfortune” – it's still not a very unique name. There's been at least one other movie released this year with the same title. The premise is hardly anything new as well. It's derivative of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “A Simple Plan,” and probably several other films. For extra measure, screenwriters Jared Butler and Lars Norberg season in a little “Deliverance.” The hiking-trip-goes-wrong, rafting scenes, and the role of a hunting rifle seem to purposely recall John Boorman's classic.

My big concern about “Blood Money” is that too much of the film would be devoted to one of my least favorite horror/thriller cliches: Jerks bickering in the woods. And, indeed, the movie has its share of that. The bitterness between Lynn, Victor and Jeff's friendship begins to simmer to the surface almost immediately. Before even finding the money, they are arguing. They argue about the romances in their past and in their present. After the cash is discovered, the three quickly begin fighting about what to do with it, whether to keep it or leave it or go to the cops. None of this stuff is especially compelling and “Blood Money's” desire to feature so much of it is its biggest flaw.

Nearly all of Lucky McKee's films have featured female protagonists. The inner lives of women is clearly a topic of interest for him. “Bloody Money” is mostly an ensemble film but Willa Fitzgerald's Lynn emerges as the strongest personality. She's a woman at the center of a love triangle and she does not care for this at all. As the film progresses, she becomes more and more aggravated with her male cohorts. She tells Vic that she preferred their friendship before she entered puberty. Before he only saw her as a potential sexual conquest. She is fed up with men fighting over her, considering her an object to be won. This is a surprisingly sharp perspective for the movie to take, a refutation of various “nice guy” philosophies.

As interesting as this dynamic is, “Blood Money” still treats Lynn as more-or-less the story's villain. She is the one who insists on keeping the money. She wants to pay off her college tuition, after loosing a scholarship because of a bad knee. However, her true motivation – simple greed – soon reveals itself. As the film goes on, Lynn becomes a bigger threat to her friends than Miller. Willa Fitzgerald starts out playing the character as a girl taken apart by her concerns. As her mad greed takes over, Fitzgerald turns Lynn into an evil bitch beyond redemption. I wonder how much of this was McKee's work and how much came from the screenwriters. I can imagine McKee inserting more depth into the evil women character.

Further boosting Lynn, suggesting she's meant to be sympathetic, is how doofy her two suitors are. “Boyhood's” Ellar Coltrane co-stars as Victor. Coltrane plays Vic as a constant sad sack. He's clearly possessive of his ex-girlfriend, resents her new boyfriend, and proceeds to mope about it. Vic's big plan to win her back – buying himself and Lynn matching monogramed knives – is the most blatant example of his foolish personality. Jacob Artist as Jeff isn't any sillier. He's responsible for loosing half of the money. His insistence on rafting home through a certain path nearly gets the three caught. By the end, he's been reduced to a weeping baby. Both actors give decent performances, trying to breath some life into the thin characters.

The marquee name in “Blood Money” is John Cusack. The film is the latest in a long line of direct-to-digital, low budget titles Cusack has lent his name to. The actor has clearly entered the Nicolas Cage portion of his career. Despite this, Cusack is having fun in “Blood Money.” He brings a lot of humor to the part. He has several sarcastic one-liners. Miller's villainous determination ends up playing more as comedic exasperation, not unlike Cusack's more famous turn in “Grosse Point Blank.” (Which is slyly referenced in dialogue.) He's not a wicked villain, just a regular guy with really loose morals. Cusack ends up elevating the film quite a bit.

Aside from “Red,” which was finished by another director, “Blood Money” is McKee's first effort outside the horror genre. Though just barely. The thriller premise – of a determined hunter chasing after his victims – isn't totally dissimilar to a slasher movie. Moreover, McKee's treatment of violence remains very intense. An early moment, where a man trips and smashes his head onto a rock, is cringe inducing. Later, a bullet to the head produces a startling amount of blood. Yet sometimes human bodies are surprisingly resilient  Later, one of the trio is grazed in the head by a bullet, bleeding profusely but not dying. The director clearly still has a talent for creative carnage.

“Blood Money,” for the most part, looks and feels like a Lucky McKee movie. It's hard to pin down but something about the general appearance of the film, from its opening shots of cascading countryside to more intimate moments inside a tent, seems abreast with his earlier films. McKee incorporates a few cool shots, from the perspective of Cusack's rifle. Sadly, there's several moment of hard-to-follow, shaky-cam direction in the movie. I hope that was a second unit's fault or something. There's nothing matching the beauty of “May” but “Blood Money” is a generally alright looking movie.

As a thriller, “Blood Money” produces an occasional moment that's thrilling or kind of neat. The way Cusack's killer turns from casual to predatory, once he realizes Victor has some of the money, is a solid sequence. The chase that follows builds some minor intensity. In its last act, “Blood Money” shifts location to an underground tunnel. This is an atmospheric setting for the long chase scene that comprises “Blood Money's” last act. In particular, a tangled mess of branches leads to probably my favorite scene in the film, when a body is tugged by two people between the branches.

“Blood Money” also moves along at a decent pace. The film runs under ninety minutes. It doesn't take long to get going. Once the movie starts, “Blood Money” remains speedy. After the story wraps up, the movie ends immediately, not bothering with any long-winded resolution. McKee's long time collaborator, Zach Passero, handles the editing. Which might explain why this feels so much like a Lucky McKee movie. The script is clearly pulpy but the director makes sure it doesn't overstate its welcome.

“Blood Money” has another distinction. It's one of the better Saban Film releases I've seen. The House the Power Rangers Built has recently distinguished themselves as the distribution company of choice for low budget, low expectations, straight-to-digital action flicks. Perhaps the bar being set so low is why my impression of “Blood Money” is more positive than expected. This is destined to be one of McKee's forgotten films. I'm not even sure it's a good movie, per say. However, it's mildly entertaining and functions fairly smoothly. When it's 2017 and your movie stars John Cusack, that's really the most you can ask for. [Grade: B-]

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