Having just seen Francesco Lucente's "Badland," in which an an Iraq war veteran returns home to a beast of a family and an unwelcoming town, following the documentary "The Way We Get By," in which a group of senior citizens are followed as they welcome home Iraq war veterans through all kinds of weather at all hours of the day, is an interesting experience.
In "Badland," Jerry (Jamie Draven) receives an "other than honorable discharge" and is sent home from Fallujah back to his meager Montana existence with a wife (Vinessa Shaw), 3 children and a menial job at a nearby convenience store with a boss who likes to taunt him and a co-worker using him as cover to scam his workplace.
Not so surprisingly, Jerry is eventually pushed over the line and an act is committed that it ominously suffocates all that remains of Lucente's 160-minute epic wannabe of an anti-war film.
By the time the smoke is cleared from Jerry's impulsive and memory-driven actions, his family has been reduced by 3/5 and, given his wife's propensity for relentless onslaughts of verbal and emotional abuse, there's likely to be more than a few in the audience who will breathe a sigh of relief at her demise though the demise of his two younger boys is likely to be more unsettling at best.
Celina (Grace Fulton), Jerry's young daughter and the only one who seemed to have been trying to love him upon his return, is the only family member who survives and she and her father go on the lam finding a new town with a new boss (Chandra West) and an uneasy connection with a sheriff (Joe Morton ) who has himself returned from the Iraq war.
It is clear that writer/director Francesco Lucente has strong anti-war sentiments and it is quite clear that he means it when he attempts to bring to life the extraordinary psychological and psychosocial stressors that plague the Iraq war veterans once they return home.
While Jerry's ability to truly connect with his daughter and Max, the sheriff, allow him at least a semblance of redemption, it's abundantly clear and justifiable that there's a price to be paid for his heinous actions and his life on the lam is overwhelming with a sense of "When's it going to happen and how's it going to play out?"
While I'd like to report to you that "Badland" is the exception to the ongoing rule of Iraq war films being box-office poison, it may actually be the most poisonous one of all.
Really, think about it.
Iraq war. Do americans really want to pay to see what they've been experiencing in the headlines for several years now?
Domestic violence. Hmmmm. Even the most critically acclaimed films have garnered only modest box-office success. Slaughtering one's own children? I'm thinking MOST audiences won't find Jerry a sympathetic character.
OVER 2 1/2 hours when the average US attention span for Americans for a film without special effects is, say, 15-20 minutes?
Yep. See what I mean? Box-office poison.
That said, it's most likely Lucente hasn't made "Badland" for the box-office.
So, the question becomes, will the arthouse world care? What about the festivals?
Well, "Badland" is currently playing as an Official Selection at the Indianapolis International Film Festival.
After all, it LOOKS artsy, courtesy of Carlo Varini's impressive camera work. Varini, a veteran of Luc Besson films, awesomely captures the Canadian countryside that served as a makeshift Montana/Wyoming while doing the best he can with Lucente's excessive use of introspective shots seemingly designed to show Jerry's contemplative and not so murderous side.
Lucente, whose last screenwriting credit is actually an uncredited contribution to 2000's debacle "2001: A Space Travesty," takes a similarly simplistic approach to say that "War is bad." Mmmmm'kay?
At over 2 1/2 hours, "Badland" is a good 30-45 minutes too long and, unfortunately, most of those moments are spent watching Jerry as he ponders, broods, contemplates and reflects. Had Lucente, who also edited the film, bothered to tighten up the film a bit he might've had an emotional tour-de-force instead of the emotionally manipulative, gratuitous and excessive film that remains.
As Jerry, Jamie Draven connects as best he can with a character whose underlying motivations are never fully developed, unless we are to believe that all returning Iraq war veterans are monsters-in-waiting. Draven, a British actor, has an accent that wavers throughout the film, though his physical presence is reminiscent of Paddy Considine in the haunting "Dead Man's Shoes."
On the other hand, Grace Fulton fares rather nicely in the thankless role of playing a young girl on the run with a homicidal father. While it's nearly universally acknowledged that children are amazingly resilient and capable of extraordinary forgiveness, Lucente's script takes Celina to places that feel forced rather than a true manifestation of the development of these characters.
Joe Morton, as the returning Iraq war veteran potentially even more damaged than Jerry, is the film's true breath of fresh air and instantly elevates the film when he shows up about 90 minutes into the proceedings. As the ill-fated abusive wife, Vinessa Shaw certainly captures the essence of a woman nearly everyone will hate, while Chandra West does a decent job as the shop owner who gives Jerry a second chance.
As a stand alone piece, composer Ludek Drizhal's may very well be effective but here it only serves to magnify Lucente's excesses and endless histrionics.
Despite dialogue designed to move and inspire, camera work created to instill a sense of overwhelm and a pointedly anti-war sentiment, "Badland" is disappointingly ineffective in truly bringing to life the post-war experience for Iraqi war veterans. Instead of creating a powerful and tragic opus on the personal and global impacts of war, "Badland" too often is reduced to an exercise in cinematic and philosophical ramblings with big statements and unnecessary, puffed up dramatics culminating in one of the year's worst most unsatisfying endings.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic