Badland is little more than a cardboard facsimile of better Westerns, gesturing robotically at genre tropes to justify its own existence.
Technically, Badland is a Western. Writer-director Justin Lee’s sixth feature follows lawman Matthias Breecher (Kevin Makely), a Pinkerton detective tasked by Senator Benjamin Burke (Tony Todd) to hunt down Confederate war criminals who escaped judgement after the Civil War. Breecher’s righteous mission brings him across the West dispensing justice in an episodic narrative that pulls on familiar Western tropes: the taciturn loner defending a homestead from greedy criminals, drifting into conflict with the corrupt sheriff of a desolate mining town. But while the film dutifully checks off bullet points on a list of genre elements it’s such a mess that it wouldn’t seem out of place as a post-midnight Z-movie on SyFy.
It should be noted that the film’s treatment of race is hilariously cringe-worthy and borderline irresponsible. Westerns have always been a deeply racialized genre, from John Ford’s cowboys-and-Indians to the nefarious Mexican gangs in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, and more often than not explicitly embody Manifest Destiny writ large. To be fair, Badland doesn’t follow that same path, and consciously makes a gesture in the opposite direction: again, its narrative framing device has a black senator sending Breecher out to hang escaped ex-Confederates. But this attempt to subvert the genre ends up far too clumsy to work itself out, to the point of feeling like parody.
When his assistant Henry notes that the Confederates they’re hunting won’t take kindly to their imminent deaths, Senator Burke—Tony Todd, doing his best—intones melodramatically, “Did we take so kindly to chains and shackles, Henry?” Wes Studi, an actor with a long and decorated career, plays the bounty hunter Harlan, the one Native American character in the film, who of course mentions scalping dead bodies within minutes of his arrival onscreen. The only Latinx people in Badland are a massive henchman named Hector, whom Breecher brutally beats in a hypermasculine fistfight, and a nameless prostitute in the Knife’s Edge saloon who answers Breecher’s inquiry about an available room with a brief “sí.” Black and brown characters come off as little more than set decoration, or in Senator Burke and Harlan’s cases, moral validation for Breecher’s quest. “You’ve been honest, just, fair, and honorable. For a white man, that is a rare attribute,” Harlan tells Breecher, in possibly the film’s least-subtle and most-absurd attempt to shore up goodwill for the character.
It’s somewhat off-putting that Badland feels so compelled to remind the viewer that hunting down white supremacists is actually a good thing. It’s a shame, as well, that Breecher’s too much of a wet towel to make that mission feel consequential. Makely, a mainstay in Lee’s filmography, does cut a fairly convincing gunslinger, and his physical presence ensures the action scenes feel believable. His acting range, however, seems to stretch from gritting his teeth all the way to raising his eyebrows. The more the audience is literally told that this job’s violence is taking a toll on Breecher’s spirit, the less convincing he becomes, though it’s hard to imagine him doing much with clunkers like “Snake’s not hard to find if you flip over enough rocks.” The other actors do what they can, but even their most earnest efforts still struggle to overcome the threadbare characterization and heavy-handed screenplay.
Replete with jarringly inconsistent camera work and tension-defusing framing, Badland is little more than a cardboard facsimile of better Westerns, gesturing robotically at genre tropes to justify its own existence. But no matter how many contemplative landscape shots and music swells Lee throws at the viewer, he can’t distract from the fact that the film’s awkward tempo and wooden writing make the entire proceedings feel sophomoric. Breecher’s set up to be an avenging angel of a kind, bringing a violent justice to wash out a national sin, but the film is palpably more interested in his nonexistent internal conflict than the historical context of its own story. It’s rare that a film manages to be so promising in concept and so comically tedious in execution, but it’s a rarity that Badland perfects.