It’s a long and winding road for a depressed, distressed Iraq war vet in “Badland,” a strenuously solemn film that wants to create some kind of American pastoral tragedy out of the nation’s current angst with the war. But whatever dramatic values are mined by writer-director-editor Francesco Lucente evaporate during an unconscionable running time of two hours and 45 minutes. Given the length and the sorry commercial track record of war-related films this year, the pic is certain B.O. cannon fodder, with the only hope that inattentive vid renters will confuse it with Terrence Malick’s “Badlands.”
Like Malick’s astonishing debut, Lucente’s film tracks an unhinged young fugitive driving across American pasture land with a naive younger girl. There the similarities end, as “Badland” contains no poetry or greater awareness of its sad characters, even after spending so much time with them. Every scene in the film could have been trimmed, resulting in a compact and possibly more affecting work that would run perhaps shorter than 90 minutes. Instead, the pic leaves the bizarre impression that it simply doesn’t want to end, rather than delivering a gut punch.
After a sudden opener that plays like a slideshow of scenes from the Iraq war, the film proper unfolds in a forlorn and nameless Wyoming town right out of a Richard Ford short story, where glum-faced Jerry (Jamie Draven), back from a long military stint that ended with a dishonorable discharge, holds down a nothing job at a gas station. Jerry looks ready to explode or fall asleep, and Draven’s performance never clarifies which.
Wrongly accused of stealing gas by his lousy boss (Patrick Richards), Jerry also gets it at home from Nora (Vinessa Shaw), who seems to be vying for the title of Wife From Hell. Living in a trailer amid acreage strewn with junk would make anyone depressed, but Nora is so foul-mouthed, relentlessly nasty and henpecking that some auds may cheer when Jerry takes violent action.
Jerry ends up on the run with his loving little daughter, Celina (Grace Fulton). Through it all — including a brief stay at an abandoned house and, finally, a stop in a small town — Celina remains unfazed by the horrors she’s witnessed. It’s a badly conceived role that seems wrong to impose on a thesp as young as Fulton.
“Badland” futilely alternates between an air of unreality and hard facts. While it defies credibility that Jerry would land in a new town and effortlessly get a job as a short-order cook (despite blanketing media coverage), it rings true when he bonds, then clashes with fellow Iraq vet Max (Joe Morton).
Draven and Morton share the screen for the second half through several excessively long sequences, speeches and exchanges that at first appear promising, but descend into bathos. The raw material would seem to be in place for a strong, moving contemporary tragedy, but scene after endless scene fails to come to life.
Lucente and cinematographer Carlo Varini are clearly fascinated with vast Western landscapes (Alberta subbing for Wyoming), but their love of magic-hour light becomes repetitive and merely pictorial. Composer Ludek Drizhal’s score is serious, symphonic and even operatic, but — true to the movie — it never stops.