Your average Hollywood thriller nowadays costs anywhere from $25-50 million to make.
Boosted with formulaic scripts that are some variation of explosion here, car chase there with a half dozen gun battles along the way, there’s little originality left in the genre, especially when you get into the world of half-cooked, rushed to the screen sequels.
If the thriller genre is ever going to truly get back to producing quality over quantity, major film studios need to take the lead of independent filmmakers like Blayne Weaver, whose new film Cut to the Chase pairs taut action with engaging, thoughtful storytelling on a shoestring $100,000 budget.
Cut to the Chase closed out day two of the seventh annual Hill Country Film Festival last weekend and earned Weaver the first Best Director award of his lengthy career as a filmmaker.
In the thriller, writer/director/actor Weaver stars as Max Chase, a career low-life finally trying to turn things around when his sister, assistant district attorney Isobel (Erin Cahill), disappears. With the help of one of her witnesses (Lyndie Greenwood), Max must track down his little sister at any cost, taking on Isobel’s abusive ex (Luke Sexton), the city’s district attorney (Patrick Kirton) and a villainous crime lord known simply as “The Man” (Lance Henriksen)
Cut to the Chase is more than just a catchy name for a film that happens to pair nicely with the main character’s last name.
Weaver does exactly what his film’s title suggests; he cuts to the chase. By skipping a lot of the minutia that bog down thrillers overly concerned with pre-battle exposition, viewers are able to more easily engage with audiences who might not be familiar with the film’s cast from other movies.
Within the first 10 minutes, Max has already verbally duked it out with The Man, hit the bar for some drinks, taken a woman to bed and attempted to run from goons chasing his across the streets of Shreveport. The way Weaver intercuts the film’s title sequence with Max’s first sexual encounter in the film is like an incredible homage to the James Bond movies and a terrific way to keep the action moving all at the same time.
The film’s incredibly compelling opening locks viewers in for the entire 90 minutes as the gas of Cut to the Chase is pretty much held down to the floorboard for the first thirty minutes.
Weaver then downshifts Cut to the Chase to a lower speed as viewers are drawn into the central story of the film – the rocky brother and sister relationship Max shares with Isobel, who has spent years keeping Max out of jail as much as possible.
The success or failure of Cut to the Chase hinges entirely on Weaver’s ability to get audiences to root for career loser anti-hero Max. An unlikeable Max kills this movie within 10 minutes. Thankfully, Weaver’s natural charm makes Max a guy you can’t help but love in spite of his obvious flaws.
In a big budget version of this movie, the studios would likely cast a bigger name like Sam Rockwell in the part, but Weaver gives a performance on par with Rockwell’s work in thrillers like Seven Psychopaths. No matter how bad things get for Max or how brutally he gets the shit kicked out of him, Weaver’s charisma carries the character through.
His charm also enhances the film’s key relationship between Max and Isobel, which is smartly played almost entirely in flashbacks. Viewers are able to get an entire backstory between the siblings with genuinely earned moments spread throughout the film, perfectly timed to correspond with whatever events are occurring in the present storyline.
Most thrillers would attempt to cram all this character development into the film’s prologue (or simply leave it out altogether). Cut to the Chase innovates in this storytelling, which works thanks to the chemistry between Weaver and Cahill.
Damsel-in-distress roles are tough because they’re often underwritten and don’t require a talented actress to perform a substantial function in thrillers. Weaver’s film demands a strong actress to play Isobel and he found one in spades with Cahill, who is able to match Weaver stride for stride in the siblings’ verbal repartee while demonstrating substantial acting chops.
Greenwood, best known for her work on TV’s Sleepy Hollow, convincingly plays the witness with a questionable past, while Henriksen exudes a Christopher Walken-esque gravitas while lurking in the shadows as the film’s requisite big bad guy.
Watch Cut to the Chase at least twice. Weaver has thoroughly layered the film’s primary narrative storyline throughout the film so that once you understand what happened to Isobel, you’ll see how all the clues were there along the way. It’s clever storytelling you rarely see in thrillers nowadays.
And that’s the whole point.
In spite of the limitations shooting a thriller on a shoestring indie film budget creates, Weaver manages to develop an interesting and largely compelling narrative built around strong character development. Cut to the Chase overcomes the odds and gives viewers the charisma and heart of its writer/director/star, making the indie thriller deserving of a wider audience.
Note: This Cinematic Considerations review of Cut to the Chase is one of several films reviewed following the seventh annual Hill Country Film Festival in Fredericksburg, Texas, April 28-May 1. Critic Matt Ward is a programmer for HCFF.