Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Day 39: Bad Company

Big Joe: I'd like to get my hands on the son of a bitch that told me to go west.

As far as revisionist Westerns go, this is pretty nice.  Bad Company uses its time period and setting to good effect, period details that are often ignored in other Westerns affect the characters and their story.  It works a great deal to interrogate the myth of the American West propagated by countless movies and dime store novels (much as Verhoven’s Flesh + Blood and Tarkovsky’s Andreiv Rublev explode any romantic notions of Medieval society).  It’s also quite funny about the mythology it’s working to interrogate without descending into parody or diminishing meaningful beats within the story its telling.

In a performance that feels oddly like Jason Schwartzman and Johnny Depp combined their powers, Barry Brown plays Drew Dixon, draft dodger and all-around good kid.  He flees to St. Joseph, Missouri in order to avoid fighting for the Union in The Civil War.  The plan is to “go west” and out of Union jurisdiction until the war is over.  The line to get on the wagon train is six months long and the soldiers in town are suspicious of him, so he throws in with Jeff Bridges and his merry band of outlaw youngsters (shades of both Oliver Twist and Robin Hood here).  

They’re all teenagers (and there’s one little kid) trying to be grownups and, accordingly, there’s a lot of self-deception in the movie.  Bridges tells his gang, and himself, that he’s got what it takes to lead them when he’s clearly just making it up as he goes.  Though they’re clearly up to a Dickensian sort of thievery, Brown thinks he can use the gang to get out west (where he thinks he will become a wealthy silver miner) without compromising his beliefs.  The other kids buy into the fun of it all: they think they’re far more competent than they are, but, as we soon see, it takes them a gazillion bullets to bring down one rabbit and none of them know how to clean it.

As they head out West to escape the army and find their fortunes, the reality behind the myth of the cowboy intrudes at every turn.  They can’t find food on the trail, prove to be ineffectual at stealing what they need, and can’t defend themselves from the real bad guys roaming the plains.  Brown finds he has to compromise his principles if he wants to survive and Bridges receives many harsh lessons about the consequences of boastful lies in extreme situations.  There are shifting alliances within the group, motivated by circumstance, and a number of funny complications (the movie also has one of the funniest and most realistic fist fights I’ve ever seen on screen between Brown and Bridges: in one moment, Brown picks up a chair, intending to bash Bridges with it, and instead misses and smashes it into a glass-fronted cabinet.  The chair doesn’t fall apart, either.  Those pioneers knew how to make some sturdy god damned furniture.  Also during the fight, a boot goes into some soup.)

The characterizations in the film are witty.  I was worried at first when Brown’s diary entries were used to frame the story.  The character is uptight and pious and I’m usually bored and frustrated by main characters like him.  Eventually, though, it becomes quite clear that the movie’s poking fun at his attitudes, challenging the ridiculous idealism the character holds to be true.  But the movie doesn’t dismiss him either; in fact, it never takes sides between Brown’s uprightness and Bridges’ shameless audacity.  It sees value in both characters, pitting their ideologies against one another and finding that both attitudes are useful.  

The conflict between Bridges and Brown is also reflected by two great character performances from David Huddleston (strangely reminiscent of M. Emmet Walsh in Blood Simple [notable because he was the “real” Lebowski in The Big Lebowski, which, of course, also featured Jeff Bridges]) and Jim Davis (I assume not the guy who does Garfield) as a Kansas Marshall and a professional criminal, respectively.  Both of these men represent the extreme of the two ideologies in conflict for most of the movie, the Marshall doesn’t care if he hangs an innocent man and the criminal is unconcerned about anyone other than himself.  When confronted with these two men, both boys find a common cause to unite against and find a place where their differences can mesh.

The movie is scored by a solo, honky-tonk sounding piano and it’s easily one of the best choices for a movie score I’ve heard in some time.  It apes, in its composition, conventional Western scores, but the sound of the solo piano struggling to fulfill its obligation to some of the epic shots in the movie reflects the incompetence of the characters as they struggle to become legends deserving of such epic shots.  The score isn’t entirely successful, there are some moments where its simplicity trivializes the events onscreen or where it goes for a laugh when it’s not even needed.  For the most part, the choice adds a layer of meaning to the entire film, instead of just acting as the omniscient and emotional narrator we’re all used to.

I didn’t mean to write so much about this film, but it demanded more of my time the more I thought about it.  It’s a great Western about the Westerns, but it’s not just a meta-criticism of America’s mythology about itself.  It’s also a finely wrought, character-based story and the characters are shaped and affected by their time period more than most movies of this sort.  As a result, it almost seems as if it’s a happy accident that the movie critiques the common Western.  That is, of course, until the last line of the film: a great punchline to a very enjoyable, yet as far as I can tell, unfairly neglected movie.


Ash Karreau said...

The best filmed fist fight in cinema history is the one between Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live which, if I'm not mistaken, is a full 120 minutes long and is over a pair of sunglasses.

Anonymous said...

Jim Davis played the Marshall, David Huddleston the criminal (you had it, probably by accident, the other way around). Good to see this sleeper getting some attention.
Ron Cerabona, Canberra