The Badge

(2002)

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

Every month, at least one movie is quietly shuffled onto DVD despite having major stars and intriguing premises. Bargain Bin seeks to find the direct-to-video features unjustly buried by studios.

I’ve always felt that the true test of an actor is how well they hold up in a bad film. In a good film, with a solid script and capable direction, an actor can coast and let the material carry them. I’m not saying that actors do that; I just feel an accomplished director and a skilled editor can mask a lot of the faults of a weak performance and make an actor look better than he or she actually is. When an actor can single-handedly save a film from a bad script and an incompetent director and make it, if not good, at least watchable, that speaks volumes to me about their ability. Such is the case with Billy Bob Thornton and The Badge.

Darl Hardwick (Thornton) is the traditional “good ole boy” sheriff of a rural Louisiana parish. Casually corrupt (he steals $20,000 worth of shoes from a truck when the driver doesn’t have insurance and refuses to take a breathalyzer test), he stumbles into a murder case when a young woman is found dead in the swamp. When he discovers the victim is a transsexual stripper who had ties to a local judge (William Devane) and possibly the governor (Michael Arata), Darl realizes that he’s in over his head as an investigator.

Complicating matters is the victim’s wife, Scarlett (Patricia Arquette). Seeking justice, she pushes the homophobic Darl to get past his prejudices and find the killer. But Darl is also wrapped up in a political fight with the Governor, making him an easy target when his less-than-ethical behavior makes him a hindrance to not only his job, but also his political party.

The Badge could have been a ton of sleazy fun. The elements are certainly there for twisty, Wild Things-style, goofy thriller: Murder, transsexual strippers, homophobia, hints of racism, political corruption, religious hysteria, and ugly family secrets all rear their silly heads at one point or another. But writer/director Robby Henson has no idea what to do with this wealth of ideas. Is the film a straightforward murder mystery that uncovers political corruption? Is it a redemption story about a corrupt, homophobic sheriff who overcomes his hang-ups to find justice for a victim almost no one cares about? Is it a campy, tongue-in-cheek thriller that wants to push as many hot-button topics as it can in just over one hundred minutes? Henson doesn’t know. And after watching the film, I’m not sure, either, but my suspicion goes to the redemption story. Sadly enough, considering the finished film on display, that could have been a good movie.

Thornton seems to be playing the redemption story, no matter what Henson really had in mind. In service of a pretty rotten script, he nails his performance. As written, Darl is just a few shades more likable than Willie from Bad Santa. He’s certainly more competent and not quite as much of a drunk, but he’s not a good person. He lies, steals, is mean to his ex-wife (Sela Ward), is a rotten father to his daughter (Jena Malone, looking ridiculous and uncomfortable as a goth teen), and makes obnoxious public scenes. It’s telling that his slow turnaround from antihero to crusader for justice is driven less by an honest sense of right and wrong than by his sexual desire for Scarlett and the possibility of screwing over the governor. Thornton always excels as these unlikable bastards who become better people in spite of themselves, and Darl fits squarely in this category.

The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well, but to be fair, the characters provided to them are not as interesting as Darl. It also doesn’t help that they don’t appear to have been given any direction. I’ve seen Devane, Arquette, Malone, and Thomas Haden Church (as Darl’s black sheep brother) give great performances when paired with the right material and director. Here, they are adrift, trying to adjust their performances on-the-fly to whatever sudden tonal shift the film makes.

Even more annoying than the overstuffed script and lack of direction are the ridiculous flourishes applied to the film in post-production. Looking like it was edited by a first-year film school student playing with an Avid for the first time, jump cuts, unnecessary flashbacks, strange use of color tinting, fast and slow motion, and audio distortion become the order of the day in an apparent effort to “spice” up the proceedings, lest any member of the audience get bored by characters who actually talk to each other.

The more I write about The Badge, the more frustrated I get about it. It has a solid central story and a tremendous lead performance, but Henson gets in the way, first through a script that’s a complete mess and then through incompetent direction. It’s no shock that it went the DTV route, what is surprising is how much potential there was in the first place.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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