**/**** Image C+ Sound B+
starring Billy Bob Thornton, Patricia Arquette, William Devane, Tom Bower
written and directed by Robby Henson
by Walter Chaw Cornering the market on redneck hicks on the mend, Billy Bob Thornton stars in Robby Henson's direct-to-cable The Badge, a Louisiana cop erotica opera equal parts James Lee Burke and The Big Easy. Long on unmotivated slow-motion stretches and editing choices that are bizarre at best, the picture has ambition and atmosphere to burn but stumbles over its own pretension. A cop procedural, lovers-on-the-run intrigue, and ultra-liberal posturing share time in a lurid gumbo before a third-act reveal; the picture's rife with flashbacks and gravid pontificating that undermine the entire shooting match. Better than it should be for Thornton's remarkable ability to convey confusion and discomfort, The Badge is more an Issue movie than a whodunit--and like most movies erring on the liberal side, its strengths don't have a chance against the sloppiness of that bleeding heart on its sleeve.
Darl (Thornton) is a small-town sheriff enduring a losing streak who finds himself at the end of his career investigating the death of a transsexual in his parish. Initially inclined to let the "'homo'-cide" rest, when it becomes clear that the corrupt Louisiana government is involved and looking to take Darl's spotty career for granted, Cop Land-style, Darl takes it upon himself to wake his long-dormant investigating skills. Stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold Scarlet (Patricia Arquette), the unbilled transsexual's grieving wife, appears on the scene to weep and almost get naked, and William Devane chews scenery as a wizened judge with an agenda longer than a possum's tail.
With a whole lot of nothing making any sort of sense all falling before a deus ex machina at the end anyhow, it's stunning just how many characters are crammed into the picture that make no impact. Julie Hagerty as a crazed fundamentalist, Jena Malone as Darl's wayward goth daughter, Sela Ward as Darl's DA ex-wife, Thomas Haden Church as Darl's gay brother, Michael Arata as a bird-looking governor, and so on, drop their ten lines or so of dialogue and promptly disappear into the rogue's gallery--the parade of Agatha Christie irregulars each with their fleeting moment as prime suspect. The unfairness of the film, and its lack of imagination, predicts that the actual killer is that crazy-eyed guy with two lines instead of ten.
An argument can be made that The Badge is about a hick overcoming his prejudices and trying to be a better father, making the picture a sad formula echo of Marc Forster's superior Monster's Ball only without any sort of courage in its revelations. Darl never really confronts his demons--he just tries to sleep with a stripper before attempting tenderness with his daughter and hugging his homosexual brother. It's that element of arbitrariness that marks The Badge as something lightweight and uninteresting. That Thornton transcends the material time and again--a testament to either his talent or his comfort with this sort of character--is ultimately just the type of thing that shines light on the need for the material to be transcended.
Lions Gate presents The Badge in an anamorphic transfer high on grain but faithful in colour and skin tones. Digital artifacts mar the picture with some regularity and shadow detail is soft, but the picture, for the most part, is passable-looking small-screen fare matted to 1.85:1 widescreen. A Dolby 5.1 audio mix shows surprising fidelity through every channel--a rich, faithful presentation with a hearty bass rumble and nice rear-channel effects. A poorly hidden Easter Egg (highlight the Lions Gate logo on the menu page) reveals trailers for The Badge (bad) and, natch, Monster's Ball; there are no other special features. Note: the 106-minute running time is erroneously listed as 87 minutes on the cover. Originally published: February 5, 2004.