Written and Directed by Justin Lee
November 1, 2019
A Pinkerton detective is sent into the American West by a U.S. Senator to hunt down Confederates who committed atrocities during the Civil War.
Badland is a much slower paced Western than I expected going in. The description of the movie that I read implied a much more energetic film than what I actually got. A slower pace is not necessarily a bad thing though. Some films benefit from taking their time and I think this is one of them. Given the story I do not think anything faster paced would have worked.
My major gripe here is that there is no overarching story throughout the film. Rather Badland is divided up into chapters with each chapter a separate story connected only by the central character of lone Pinkerton detective Matthias Breecher (Kevin Makely). This reminds me of the Clint Eastwood film Hang ‘Em High in that regard. As I recall that film was a series of stories connected by the character of Jed Cooper and his mission. I admit to needing to revisit that one, so my recollection is a bit fuzzy. Badland can come off because of this as a series of shorts sewn into a movie and not a connected film.
Matthias here is not fighting one individual as implied by the presence of Trace Adkins and Jeff Fahey on the film’s poster. You would think both would play a central character or long-lasting character but not so much. Rather he is hunting individuals down and shooting them even though it is suggested that he supposed to be bringing them to justice. He does not really attempt to arrest them. He shoots and kills and collects a bounty and on to the next dead man walking.
Breecher is sent on this mission by African-American Senator Benjamin Burke (Tony Todd). He is not significant to the story though which is a shame. It is an interesting addition for a Western, but his character really did not need to be even be present for what the detective did. This could easily have been accomplished by keeping the detective as just some loan stranger on horseback riding from town to town to his ultimate goal of a farm down South. Senator Burke provided mostly exposition in his moments. Todd is a good actor and added some dramatic weight to this, but his character felt truly unnecessary. I wish he had been more integral.
Mira Sorvino’s name is also strong in the credits, but her character of Sarah Cooke is only significant to one portion of the movie. Once that vignette comes and goes, her remaining significance is as a happy ending for Breecher. Her father Reginald Cooke (the legendary Bruce Dern lending some weight to this Western) is one of Breecher’s targets. Their interactions are more ominous talking and not much action as the character of Reginald is dying. Sarah is there to provide a romantic interest for Breecher and make him doubt what he is doing.
As mentioned before Trace Adkins and Jeff Fahey, sizeable names to be sure, are in this but Adkins shows up briefly in the beginning as Confederate General Corbin Dandridge (very evil in his brief turn) during the opening scene only to be quickly gunned down by our hero (?). Fahey is only part of the ending story as Huxley Wainwright with that story thinly connected to the first. Wes Studi shows up as bounty hunter Harlan Red whose presence bookends the film. These are all good to great actors (Adkins still surprises me) stuck in extended cameos which ultimately waste their talent. I had some hope Studi might
I definitely liked the character of Breecher, but I would have liked to have seen him face off against a single villain and deal with a story that ran from the beginning to the end of the film. I think that could have been something special and the film as well as the character suffered for being in a story that was just a series of adventures. It hindered the narrative a bit and limited character development for him. In fact, it was as bit of a lead pipe to the knee of all the characters in the film. It is difficult to flesh out anyone much in a film if they pushed out of the way for a new set of characters.
Badland is a little bit of a revisionist Western and a little bit of an old-school Western. The story is heavy on the angst and regret and drama involving the assorted characters as well as more often than not avoiding embracing Western mythology, but each vignette does engage in the usual tropes of the mysterious stranger fighting the bad guys. In that they manage to strike a nice balance. I think in the end this film was closer to an old style Western than the newer downer stuff that attempts to give a finger to the mythology of the past.
I enjoyed that Badland tried to emulate old-school Westerns at times. It’s not something we see very often these days as filmmakers avoid embracing the old tropes of the genre and make something like so many dramas today where in general it’s a bunch of terrible people facing off against other terrible people or people stuck in terrible circumstances. This has become something of a cliché in film and television these days that it is sad.
Despite being a cheaper Western, Badland does not look too bad. The background is populated just enough, and the production values look decent. You feel as if the world they are presenting is inhabited by more than just the people being showcased at the moment. It looks lived in which does not happen too often in low budget films.
Badland is not a bad movie, but it is not the greatest one ever. This movie succeeds more often than it fails. It mostly manages to be a satisfying mix of old and new Western. I say watch it!