By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Badland,” Arcangelo Entertainment Inc., 2007]
“Badland”‘s writer-director Francesco Lucente clearly feels strongly about the Iraq War and its impact on returning veterans. But perhaps he feels a bit too strongly. There’s an old expression about how people making decisions should “remove emotion from the equation,” and I think Lucente could have benefited from following that advice. There’s potential here, but it’s marred by a clunky screenplay that emphatically hammers its point home over and over again for 160 endless minutes.
Jerry (Jamie Draven) is an Iraq vet struggling to make ends meet in a crummy job and to keep his sanity in a crummy marriage. Quickly, he reaches a breaking point, and murders his wife and two sons. But when he
turns his gun on his little daughter Celina (Grace Fulton) it jams, and he ultimately relents. So Jerry packs up Celina and travels the Midwest and Upper Plains until they find a romantic comedy setup to hunker down in, where Jerry stumbles into a relationship with and job working for the cute owner of a small-town diner.
“Badland” joins a lengthy list of recent films that tell aggressively angry stories from the Iraq War home front, including the similarly themed (and equally heavy-handed) “Home of the Brave” from Irwin Winkler,
as well as Paul Haggis’ slightly more mainstream “In the Valley of Elah.” “Badland”‘s particular contribution to this ongoing dialogue is a portfolio of poetic images of golden hour landscape from cinematographer Carlo Varini (particularly impressive on a relatively low budget) and some moments, mostly early in the film, of quiet reflection that suggest a sense of loss in ways that Lucente’s screenplay unsuccessfully strains to achieve again.
He’d be better off letting his images speak for themselves, rather than pelting us with obvious exposition like this mouthful we get from a remarkably pensive TV reporter: “Mr. Rice’s apparent murder-suicide follows a recent and tragic trend among a number of returning reservists from Iraq. Some
find their jobs illegally denied them, their families facing financial ruin. Many find themselves unable to cope.” Indeed, the best moments are the ones without words, like a potent scene where Jerry paces back and forth in an increasingly erratic pattern (fingering a cigarette, shoving it in his mouth, tossing it away) after receiving an ominous phone call. Dialogue would have only gotten in the
way of Draven’s performance (partly because the English actor’s Midwestern accent isn’t exactly on point).
Sadly, Lucente can’t resist doing the opposite most everywhere else in “Badland,” explaining and overexplaining and reexplaining his points. Even the score, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a
very special episode of “Highway to Heaven,” won’t leave well enough alone. I appreciate the film’s good intentions while also acknowledging what good intentions sometimes pave the way to.