It Cuts Deep is the kind of microbudget, queasy dramedy that might have been a minor revelation in the early Aughts when filmmakers like the Duplass Brothers and Joe Swanberg brought an acute sense of realism to the relationship drama with the mumblecore movement.
Judging from his writing-directing debut, Nicholas Santos is no doubt a graduate of the mumblecore school, relying heavily on (seemingly) improvised dialogue and its three leads to elevate an intentionally slight premise. Alas, It Cuts Deep ends up feeling like an inspired 20-minute short stretched out to an unnecessary 77 minutes.
A cold open in which a woman and her lover are slaughtered by a knife-wielding maniac is the only indication that the movie may shift gears from an uncomfortable domestic three-hander to something more morbid. Sam (Charles Gould) is a scruffy, hipster man-child who’s inexplicably dating the sensible, charming and gorgeous Ashley (Quinn Jackson) — both of whom we meet sitting across from one another at a picnic table. Ashley gently brings up their building a family together, a topic which Sam can’t help but avoid by turning into a joke about anal sex.
Gould really leans into Sam’s abrasiveness in his performance, and while it does make his character effectively repellent, it also robs the audience of any chance to engage with the central conflict of whether or not he will be able to grow the hell up and commit. In fact, once his old high school pal Nolan (Josh Anderson) comes into the picture and threatens the stability of Sam and Ashley’s relationship, you hope for a reckoning.
It Cuts Deep is at its funniest in these early scenes between Nolan, Sam and Ashley. Their chance meeting at a department store prompts a few suspicions from Ashley, as there’s clearly something eerie about Nolan and Sam’s history that neither are sharing with her. Further, Nolan’s incessant chipperness and optimistic attitude toward monogamy is in sharp contrast to Sam’s grumpy slacker, and both actors play off one another convincingly. At times, it’s difficult to determine whether Sam is justified in his disgust towards Nolan’s eager friendliness or if Nolan is simply a well-meaning dude trying to reconnect with his former buddy.
It’s shortly after this peak, however, where It Cuts Deep falls victim to its own repetitive structure. Even as it barely scrapes feature length, the pacing grinds to a halt when the movie becomes a series of sequences in which Nolan prods Sam about his relationship until he explodes and then further alienates Ashley. Sam, of course, is mastering the art of self-sabotage; the irony that our fears of a relationship failing often cause it to do just that is poignant, but it’s hammered over and over here until a third-act development allows the underlying horror elements to kick into full gear.
That finale, which wisely shifts the focus from the two guys to Ashley, hinges on a “twist” that nonetheless feels obvious about 10 minutes into the film. It’s a bold pivot into dark territory that hopes to cut as deep as the title promises, but by then you’re so ready to leave these characters that it ends up as just a scratch.