Review by Jared Eisenstat
Posted on 12 April 2013
Source Paramount DVD
Categories Acid Westerns
America’s at war, and it’s dividing the nation. Flocks of young men take flight to dodge the draft. They evade the horrors of the battlefield, but resign themselves to a whole other world of horrors, demoralization, and dead-end prospects. The contamination of war seeps into the everyday life of the country, bringing malaise and churning of values. No, it’s not the Vietnam War (or armed fiascos of the 21st century). In Bad Company, a 93-minute exercise in pitiless Dickensian realism spiked with irony, this is the bleak vision imposed on the Civil War.
It’s 1863 in Ohio, and the Union army is boosting its ranks by bursting into homes, nabbing draft-dodgers and tossing them into the paddy wagon. Drew Dixon, a proper young gentleman of good Methodist stock, manages to elude capture. But it’s only a matter of time before the bluecoats come back for him, so his parents - having already lost the eldest son to war - send him off with a hundred dollars, motherly ministrations, and his brother’s pocket watch, to make his way out West for the mining boomtown of Virginia City. There, he’ll be able to shirk the draft and maybe even find his own fortune.
Everything’s going according to plan as Drew arrives at the way station city of St. Joe. There, he runs into the smooth talking Jake Rumsey. A cheerful conman, Jake spots an easy mark and handily knocks Drew out and relieves him of his valuables. Turns out that Jake leads a band of goons that prowl the city, running petty scams and stick-ups. They’re like a rough and tumble posse of street urchins out of Oliver Twist, mixed with the can-do American bluster, diction and satire of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Out to milk another victim, Jake crosses paths with Drew once more, and after a scuffle in a parsonage - one of a few ways in which we early on see that Drew’s not just a helpless pampered patsy after all - the two manage a truce of sorts. Jake even persuades Drew to join him and his feral crew as they make their way out West, for the freedom of the road and promise of something better. And so it seems that we’re in for a tale of orphans who pick up their bootstraps and embark on a journey literal and metaphoric into adulthood, working together toward a better life. As it turns out, this is not the case.
The boys fashion themselves as toughs with their horses and pistols and badass fronts. Despite their gumption and tough-guy act, we quickly learn that these hooligans are more yellow than they let on. It takes the whole lot of them shooting en masse to take down a measly hare, and the prospect of skinning it has them all but helpless. It’s while Jake skins the game that we get a taste of what Benton’s up to here: he treats us to an unabridged scene of the skinning, detailing each boy’s face as he watches agape, shocked and traumatized. We don’t see the bloody mess, but we hear the horrifying slopping and tearing sounds as Jake, barely suppressing his disgust, goes about the gory task.
That night, huddled around a fire, the youths all listen rapt as Drew reads from Jane Eyre. Ten-year-old Boog Bookin, the endearingly crude-tongued junior member of the crew, warms up to Drew and tells of his own family’s ups and downs. He relays the tale of his father’s murder, all the more heart-rending for the matter-of-fact tone of his delivery. That night, Drew even entrusts Jake with his brother’s watch. It’s a touching scene, and a final moment of innocence for this ragtag band of would-be ruffians.
But from there, it’s a long slow decline. As the lads penetrate deeper into the frontier, with every encounter they run into ever-greater threats - physical, material, moral. Drew initially resists temptation and sticks to his noble code, showing the force of his will in the face of peer pressure and dire circumstance. Desperate conditions and the soul-crushing repetition of cruelty at every turn slowly wear away at his refined airs, though, forcing Drew to continually realign the lofty values inculcated in him as a young man of privilege to the harsh realities of iniquity and depravity in which he now finds himself. Moral purity and generosity of spirit, it turns out, don’t exactly play well in a Hobbesian state of nature.
It starts when a gang of hardened horseman rides upon them as they sleep like babes at dawn. The wretched men are like future shadows of the boys, sapped of innocence and heart. Guns drawn, they shake Jake’s gang down and ride off. But Jake stands transfixed by their gruff, seemingly indomitable leader, Big Joe. He’s portrayed by David Huddleston, a larger than life character actor later immortalized as the Big Lebowski, radiates confidence and competence as Big Joe while he commands his brutal band of thugs. Jake watches in awe, studying him to absorb the outsize personality, the utter control he is able to assert over man.
Afterward, Jake itches to prove himself, and grows even more domineering. He launches a botched raid on a chicken farm that turns tragic. The crew, already set back by misfortune, chafes under the volatile rule of Jake, until it splinters apart like the nation itself.
And like that, it’s just Jake and Drew. Best friends, and even better enemies, their cruelty to each other rubs them hard. The closer they get, the more extreme they clash, until it seems their only motivation is mutual animosity. At one point, Drew confronts his friend for stealing his cash. “Know what I done with your money?” Jake asks. “I spent it on whores. Just cause I knew that’s what you wouldn’t a done.” Yet, despite their hostility, they keep winding up back together. In the curious freeze frame at end of the film, we see just how similar they’ve become.
Robert Benton was already a proven screenwriter when he took the helm for his freshman directorial outing with Bad Company. He and his Bonnie and Clyde co-scribe, David Newman, were something of a screenwriting duo for over a decade. Benton would go on to co-write Superman (with Newman) and write and direct Kramer vs. Kramer and Nobody’s Fool (without him). In Bad Company, he achieves a feel of tragic realism drained of sentimentality. We see hangings, spasms and all; a middle-aged failed homesteader sells the body of his female companion for a quick profit; a boy gets blasted in the head. And it happens without a hint of deeper significance or elevating music. Benton treats these bleak scenes as just another piece of the world. This is reality as absurdity, where suffering has no meaning and redemption is just another word.
Men are awkward and imperfect, far from the archetypes of good-guy and villain familiar from classical Westerns. Plans are foiled at every turn, heroes are full of ignoble intentions, and just nobody can shoot a gun straight. Everyday common people are debased, debauched, and greedy. A soulless sheriff relies on brute numbers instead of sharpshooting prowess to crush a gang of brigands. A man of the law and upholder of justice, he hangs men with the same gravity as one would eat breakfast, and with just about the same regularity.
Bad Company shows contempt for authority, upheaval in social norms and dissolution replacing religious piety. This is a world so enmeshed in moral confusion and ambiguity that they become almost incidental details. Drew begins as a devout, honest young man, but he soon links up with a gang; he is often a victim, and increasingly a victimizer. He joins a sheriff’s posse, but only to find Jake and exact revenge. At first he distances himself from crime, but eventually he realizes that this is the only way that he can get by. As with Bonnie and Clyde, the heroes are also villains of a sort, their very amorality making them the focus of our fixation. These are the central figures in a new, shadowy, grayer American mythology. Here, though, Benton drops any hint of glamor.
Cinematographer Gordon Willis, DP on the Godfather trilogy, gives us unconventional views on the action. In place of close-ups and shot-reverse-shots, we see the action from medium distances, with angle shifts and shots in depth. Amidst an unforgiving, barren landscape, the effect is to emphasize the smallness and insignificance of man. But it’s not in the service of giving us pretty views of the terrain. Though there are elegant shots of nature, prettiness isn’t the virtue here. The impact of the aesthetic lies in the grounded, lived-in sense of the desperate situations that unfold.
Jeff Bridges is beguiling as Jake Rumsey. He’s the main acting draw here, and maybe the highlight of the film. He inhabits Jake with nuance of gesture and cadence, giving him complexity and stirring our sympathy for him despite his terrible actions. Barry Brown, off-set buds with Bridges, has a prettier face and was thought destined for stardom, though he died a tragic early death by suicide in 1978. He looks like a cross between Judd Nelson (circa The Breakfast Club) and a young Christian Bale, and at his best he embodies the former’s ease and the latter’s crisp intensity. At other times, he comes off as too stiff and stilted. He shows a limited range, compared with Bridges quick tonal shifts and smooth naturalism, though this might be due to the different nature of their roles.
Bad Company was made during the Vietnam War, and clearly reflects misgivings about that later conflict, in the devastation of war on society and the individual. Disillusioned youth lose their innocence as they grow up too quickly, and their faith in society crumbles along the way. But there’s a larger allegory brewing below this surface skewering of the Vietnam imbroglio. It’s a critical, crushing vision of America itself, laying bare the cruelty, injustice and mass-delusion that underlie the national myth of optimism and opportunity. Everyone in the film who goes west realizes that it’s a sham. The myth of the free frontier full of riches for the taking by industrious folk, an abiding metaphor for the American dream, is shown in its naked emptiness. In its place, crime, cruelty, and violence reign. Yet, there is still a belief in the value of individual life, and the social relations - however fraught - that spring up along the way. Bad Company offers a sobering reinterpretation of America, with the silver lining of a humanistic touch.
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