Blood for Dust is the sort of neo-Western yarn that throws a mundane all-American nobody into a world of violence, grit and nasty criminals who spout bleak philosophies with the linguistic erudition of mid-century pulp poets. Lines like “You can only sell a lie about something you did, not something you’re about to do” spoken right after an unexpected ballet of bullets. Monologues about the nature of good and evil in a country that has largely forgotten all but the richest, who only seem to get richer as everyone else suffers. Bleak parables about the righteous and the damned, questioning whether the moral dimensions of the United States have truly changed since the days of desperados.
It’s the sort of market Taylor Sheridan has cornered in the modern American psyche with films like Hell or High Water and Wind River and his television soap operas. But beneath his seemingly omnipresent role in 21st-century Western storytelling, there are other, lesser-known films that tackle the same material with just as much grit, anger and confidence. Blood for Dust is one such tale, a glacially placed, shockingly violent take on the desolation of the contemporary West.
Cliff (Scoot McNairy) is a traveling salesman of medical devices, struggling after taking part in the wrong con and having turned to crime. His line of work puts him in a position to help a courier named Ricky (Kit Harington) move some illicit material. Things don’t go as planned. If they did, we wouldn’t have a story. Soon, Cliff finds himself pursued by local crime lord John (Josh Lucas) and his men, and the table is set for a violent reckoning.
Director Rod Blackhurst (who co-wrote the screenplay with David Ebeltoft) never forgets that Westerns are a mixture of wide natural landscapes and intimate character work. In some ways, that feels like Westerns 101. But so many of them seem to get it wrong. Not Blackhurst, who’s aided by a cast that also includes Amber Rose Mason, Ethan Suplee and Stephen Dorff. They all deliver committed performances, particularly Harington, who slides into his particular archetype and makes a meal out of it.
There’s a particular audience for these jaunts into the still-wild West, especially for modern takes that don’t skimp on the moral rot of the modern world. It’s unrelentingly violent and, frankly, slow-building in its tension between each murderous release. I can’t promise this is for everyone, but for me, it’s always an exciting event when I discover a compelling new Western that seems to be flying under the radar — especially one that captures the genre’s ins-and-outs without trying to be something it isn’t. Blood for Dust is some damn fine nuts-and-bolts neo-Western storytelling.