With everyone sheltering in place during this pandemic, Netflix has become the hero of the day, providing entertainment when we so desperately need it.
Some of it is relatively good. Some of it, well, not so much.
Case in point, the new western Badland featuring a star-sprinkled cast that includes Mira Sorvino, Bruce Dern, Wes Studi, and Trace Adkins.
It’s a low-budget film counting on the draw of these bankable stars to rope you in.
The strategy seems to be working. According to a press release, Badland is “currently # 3 on Netflix’s movie chart and # 7 overall amongst Netflix’s massive library of offerings appealing to their 167 million subscribers.”
The movie stars Kevin Makely, also the film’s producer.
It was written and directed by Justin Lee.
Without giving away the plot, the story is the quintessential western tale of a gunslinger who rides into town to confront the bad guys and restore order. We’ve seen this played out a million times.
There’s even a great book on the subject called The Six-Gun Mystique written by John J. Cawelti (1971). In this case the protagonist , Mathias Breecher, is a six-gun cowboy-detective tracking down war criminals from the Civil War.
Early in the story, he locates a dying Confederate officer (Bruce Dern) and his strong, frontier-woman daughter (Mira Sorvino). Soon he is faced with the dilemma of what to do about carrying out his mission to execute the old man without losing the growing affection of the condemned man’s only daughter.
Beyond that, the plot thickens with a list of other unsavory characters that he must bring to justice in this lawless world of ambushes, fights and shoot-outs.
The synopsis of the plot sounds interesting enough. The challenge here is how to expand it into an entertaining, full-length screenplay and movie.
Particularly when you’re working with limited funds.
In the world of low-budget, independent filmmaking, writers and producers often make concessions and compromises in bringing their story from script to screen.
It forces some tough decisions that are driven by costs when it comes to actors, locations, props, or wardrobe, the number of action sequences you can actually stage, or pretty much anything you are hoping to do after the salaries of the top-billed stars have been paid.
As a result, movies like this fall back on a strategy of limiting the number and complexity of scenes required to tell the story.
And when that happens, the characters sometimes find themselves trapped in lengthy exchanges of two-character dialog in which the camera just cuts back and forth between them in a single location.
Fewer locations means fewer set-ups and that costs less money. It’s cost efficient, but not necessarily exciting. The stoic hero who is often “a man of few words” suddenly has quite a lot to say in bogged-down scenes like this, perhaps a lot more than we would prefer to hear.
Consequently, what should be an action driven drama starts takes on the feeling of a talky daytime soap opera.
Other cost-cutting measures include the reliance on stock locations and sets (which start to look familiar since you’ve seen them in other movies and series). The wardrobe and props look noticeably store-bought and brand-new as opposed to ones that are either authentic or artificially aged.
In the case of Badland our hero is the only character wearing clothing that looks a little tattered and lived in (though his gun belt, pistols and saddle look brand new). Everyone else seems to be sporting western wear that was purchased half an hour before the cameras rolled.
Maybe the most noticeable example is the night shirt that Bruce Dern’s character wears, which is pure white, pristine and perfectly laundered in scene after scene. Not what you might expect from an old man coughing himself to death in his sparse, prairie surroundings.
It’s all too perfect. And you realize that little details like this call attention to themselves and collectively burst the bubble of believability.
Let me paraphrase the quote that cinema is all about “the suspension of disbelief.”
It’s precisely the attention to details like these, or the absence of it, that often separates independent films from mainstream studio movies. In the indie world, you work with what you have.
You work with what you can afford. And you hope that the audience will get so caught up in the story that they won’t notice the shortcuts and shortcomings.
Badland might not offer up much in the way of originality. As mentioned, it’s the standard gunslinger saga.
It serves up the required quota of western story elements we have come to know and love. There is no attempt here to re-invent or re-imagine the western genre.
In terms of the cast, it’s great to see Mira Sorvino, Bruce Dern and Wes Studi again.
They are veteran performers, each with stellar resumes, doing the best they could with Badland’s screenplay.
To his credit, Kevin Makely’s homage to any number of Clint Eastwood’s western heroes is straightforward and sincere. How many of us get to play our childhood movie idol in a movie of our own?
On a technical level, Badland is what you would expect to see in your average Netfix movie. It’s pretty standard fare.
The direction occasionally violates the “180 degree” rule, which maintains that two characters are facing each other when cutting back and forth within a shot. They can’t both be facing screen right or screen left, as they sometimes do here. It’s one of the basic rules you learn in Directing 101.
Taking all that into account, Badland isn’t necessarily a bad movie.
Less talk and more action would have made it a better one. But all that costs money and money is precisely what is lacking in the world of independent, low-budget moviemaking.
You simply do the best that you can with what you have.
Story-wise, there isn’t much that’s new or different here. But that can be said of a lot of movie westerns.
They all play by the same formulaic rules of the genre.
We pretty much know what will happen and how everything will play out in the end.
Predictability never seems to be an issue. If anything, the current success of Badlandon Netflix attests to that.
Badland is a Netflix take on the classic Western. On a budget.
Is Badland a bad movie? At the very least, it’s a lesson on what you can and can’t do when you wish you had a bigger "Fistful of Dollars."