At first glance at the poster art for The Cutlass, I was intrigued. As far as I knew, a cutlass was either a vintage car in my elderly neighbor’s garage or an old school pirate sword, but the knife wielding gal standing front and center in the promo art didn’t seem connected to either of those worlds. Add to all this the claim that the film is inspired by a true story and there seemed to be a lot to unpack with The Cutlass.
Looking at director, Darisha Beresford’s brief filmography reveals that The Cutlass started out as a 12 minute short film on the festival circuit in 2013 and has now been given a 90 minute format to tell the intense story of a young woman taken hostage in the jungles of Trinidad.
I’d like to say that The Cutlass is deserving of the added investment by the producers, but despite the expanded run time, the film is shot like an unaired episode of LOST and the network TV aesthetic does indeed detract from any cinematic flavor it could have. The Cutlass very much feels like somebody’s first film.
While the poster and tag line of “Welcome To the Jungle” seem to promise an action packed tale of a machete wielding psycho torturing a woman who eventually gets the upper hand, The Cutlass is in actuality a slow and not terribly suspenseful experience, that is given a slight visual boost by its exotic locale.
If I can give the film some praise, the performance by its lead actress, Lisa-Bel Hirschmann is engaging as the soon to be college student, Jo who is caught in a dangerous situation. She’s got a very natural charisma on screen that gives the viewer a reason to stay involved in her plight, even if the script and its jarringly out of place narration don’t give her much to work with.
Additionally, Hirschmann’s co-star, Arnold Goindhan as the amoral, but not totally unsympathetic abductor, Al, manages to shy away from playing an evil for evil’s sake villain. The truth behind his quiet menace is a slow burn, revealing the dark psyche forged during a childhood spent in squalor on the island nation. He’s got a debt to pay to a local crime boss and this hostage is just a means to an end.
There’s also a running subplot about the girl’s cancer-ridden father and boyfriend staging their own search for Jo alongside the police that doesn’t amount to much, other than to pad out the elongated run time. Each time the movie cuts away to this b-story you learn nothing you didn’t already know. The father is sick, but he wants to find his daughter, end of story.
In truth, most of the film is spent on endless conversations about class disparity between Jo and Al as he keeps her in hiding, awaiting delivery of the ransom money. During this time there is also an implied rape scene that is wholly unnecessary, as it adds no dramatic stakes to the story and is never even addressed by the characters. If anything it merely serves to make Al more pathetic.
So what about The Cutlass made so prominent in the title? It appears throughout the film in passing mention and as a static prop, but rarely in a menacing manner. It’s hardly Chekhov’s gun or knife, as the case may be. Our heroine ultimately uses the blade as a means of distraction for her anti-climactic escape, but the cutlass itself bears no importance on the plot. It could have just as easily been a piece of wood or a lead pipe.
Unfortunately, The Cutlass is a total bait and switch. The marketing promises a balls to the wall adventure with a final girl pushed too far by her devious captor and instead the director delivers a film that pushes the viewer to the brink of boredom. I believe Beresford’s intention was to make The Cutlass a psychological battle between the captive and her captor as opposed to a violent thriller, but the film is without any sense of tension whatsoever, and falls flat in production as well.
In total, the interesting moments to be found in The Cutlass add up to its original 12 minute running time and perhaps that’s the format the story was best suited for. The Cutlass will be available on digital across the US on December 12, 2017.