From top to bottom, Francesco Lucente's Badland is an example of such terminal awfulness that writing about it is as exasperating as watching it. After being dishonorably discharged from service in Iraq (for reasons Lucente, in an inept narrative strategy, doesn't reveal until far too late in the game), reservist Jerry (Jamie Draven) now schleps by as a clerk at a gas station, where his standard-issue hard-ass boss accuses him of stealing. Back in his trailer home, Nora (Vinessa Shaw), his virago of a housewife, pregnant with their fourth, lambastes Jerry to no end while he stares emptily out the window nursing a cigarette. In short, Lucente gives us the white-trash American nightmare cliché.
When Jerry discovers that Nora's been secretly siphoning money from him, he goes ballistic, to put it mildly, blowing her brains out before wasting his two young sons and taking off cross-country with Celine (Grace Fulton), his pure-hearted little daughter. As much as one takes cathartic joy in seeing Nora get permanently silenced, and as audacious a choice it is to suddenly turn Jerry from a put-upon victim to a cold-blooded killer, it might've worked in a blackly comic satire. But Lucente's got in mind a sentimental redemption drama of sorts. Jerry's summary dispatching of his own family forever repels us from him, rendering him a permanently unreliable, if not out and out despicable, character. The deal is off.
No matter. Lucente means to paint Jerry as the tragic product of a hard-luck marriage and an exploitative society. To this end, he relentlessly slathers his soundtrack with a gushing, expansive score more suited to a Lord of the Rings rip-off than an interpersonal drama, and likewise outsizes an intimate story with large-scale landscape compositions suited to pretty postcards. Neither strategy yields much in terms of building theme or enriching our interpretation of Badland 's increasingly ludicrous goings-on as the fugitive Jerry and his daughter eventually land in a small, sleepy town.
There, in spite of the fact Jerry's face is plastered on TV news channels, he manages to find a job as a fry cook at a diner owned by Oli (Chandra West), a fetching, down-to-earth blond (go figure!). Lucente tries his hand at developing some kind of warm, flirtatious chemistry between Jerry and Oli, but this proves such a ludicrous maneuver, in light of Jerry's preceding actions, that one wonders, "Is this really happening?" When Jerry befriends Max, a just-returned war veteran (Joe Morton) nursing deep emotional scars, Badland fares no better; their scenes trade in drunken platitudes about the morality of killing and the enslavement of the average Joe by the military-industrial powers-that-be.
On it goes for a 160 torturous minutes: Lucente (who was also Badland ’s editor) alternates between senselessly long, dreary montages of Jerry's odyssey and senselessly long, dreary dead-end scenes of dialogue that vacillate between toothless chitchat and tired didacticisms mumbled by stereotypically embittered ex-soldiers. The performances, no surprise, are as overwrought and cliché-bound as the rest of Badland, with the British Draven unsure whether Jerry is a country hick, a Bostonian workingman or a Cockney thug—his accent randomly fluctuating from one to the other. Morton whips himself up into an emotional mess without hooking into a distinctive character, while Fulton and West simper along in minimally defined roles.
How Lucente's script, which would not have passed muster in a beginner's screenwriting class, made it before cameras is baffling, and, indeed, all of the staggering defects in performance and story construction are mooted when one considers Badland 's final story twist, one that is not divulged here but is so naïve, unintelligent and ill-advised that it neuters everything one has suffered up to that point. Offensive to all and on every level, Badland tops the landfill of this year's worst.
Cast: Jamie Draven, Grace Fulton, Vinessa Shaw, Joe Morton and Chandra West
Director/Screenwriter: Francesco Lucente
Producers: Olimpia Lucente and Jörg Neumann
Rating: R for some strong disturbing violence and pervasive language
Running time: 160 min.
Release date: November 30, 2007 NY/LA