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Tribeca 2023: Blood for Dust, Catching Dust

It might seem obvious to bundle two Tribeca premieres with the word “Dust” into one dispatch, but these films have more in common than just a title. They’re both about desperate people trying to outrun their past and avoid a violent future. One is more effective than the other, but I could see both finding an audience when they spiral off the fest circuit and clean themselves up.

The better of the two by some stretch is Rod Blackhurst’s “Blood for Dust,” a film that echoes “Hell or High Water” in how it captures how easy it is for economic desperation to lead to bad decisions. Some of the framing and plotting get repetitive, but this is a fun, old-fashioned thriller that uses character actors to populate a world of dangerous criminals who threaten to destroy what seems like a decent man just trying to provide for his family. The always-excellent Scoot McNairy gets one of his biggest roles here, and anything that makes the star of “Halt and Catch Fire” into a bigger name is a force for good. He’s such a fascinating actor, and he’s able to tap into an everyman sensibility without overplaying it. He’s an everyman who somehow looks like he's drowning on dry land.

The everyman here is Cliff, a traveling salesman really struggling at home. While on the road, he runs into a colleague from a scheme that went wrong before named Ricky (Kit Harington). The “Game of Thrones” star plays Ricky as one of those dangerous figures that can’t be trusted, but Cliff doesn’t have much of a choice. Ricky convinces him that a traveling salesman is the perfect cover for a drug runner. As Cliff says, he has a “route and a routine.” No one would suspect the suburban schlub of working for a dangerous cartel leader named John, played by Josh Lucas in a chilling role. Before you know it, Cliff and Ricky are running drugs, and, well, Ricky has some plans that might not be in the best interest of Cliff’s bottom line.

Blackhurst directs “Blood for Dust” with grimy momentum. It takes place mostly in barely-lit backrooms, seedy motels, and or under the dashboard light of a car. It’s an admirably stripped-down affair that allows its cast to be its strength, including solid turns from Stephen Dorff and Ethan Suplee. I found myself less interested in the betrayals and the plotting than just spending time with these characters. A “job interview” between Cliff and John is chillingly memorable, for example, but less so for the plot details than the tone it sets. I’ve said the opposite of this so many times that it’s almost becoming boring in my TV reviews, but whereas so much prestige television feels like a feature script stretched to the length of a season, “Blood for Dust” almost seems like it could have worked better as a limited series. Let that dust sink into your skin. And your lungs.

Speaking of dust, there’s a lot of it in the barren nowhere where Stuart Gatt’s “Catching Dust” unfolds. Erin Moriarty (“The Boys”) shines in the central role of this four-character thriller, but everyone here struggles to break out of the forceful mechanics of a script that doesn’t care about the people as much as the inevitable tragedy. The film is built on a country/city dynamic that relies too heavily on that as a dramatic foundation, and I was pushed away from the realism set up by the first act as the melodramatic twists piled up. 

Moriarty plays Geena, a woman living WAY off the grid with her partner Clyde (an effectively stoic Jai Courtney). They are literally in the middle of nowhere, in a mobile home in the Big Bend desert in Texas. He has a small garden and hunts for their food, but this is not a place for socializing. A few early lines make it clear that Clyde and Geena are hiding for a reason—either running from the law or a dangerous criminal—and Clyde lets his brutish side get a hold of him too much, almost serving as Geena’s kidnapper in a sense. She’s stuck with him. As she’s thinking of trying to escape, something almost impossible happens: Another trailer from New York arrives next door with another couple, Amaya (Dina Shihabi) and Andy (Ryan Corr). They’re grieving a loss and trying to find peace. They won’t find much of that.

“Catching Dust” should be a character study of two very different couples and how they influence one another, but it never quite takes these people seriously enough to work on that level. The developments are too obviously telegraphed, from Clyde being too controlling of Amaya, to Andy having an eye for Geena. Gatt does his best work as a writer with Clyde, sketching a character who doesn’t say much but carries the weight of the world every time he goes hunting. He knows he’s not good for Geena. He knows he’s holding her back. But it’s all he has left to hold onto. Everyone else, even Geena, but especially Andy and Amaya, are treated like devices. We become stuck with these people in the middle of nowhere, as eager to escape as the protagonist.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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