Bad Lands is the kind of movie where you need to stop in the middle, look out of the window, and take a deep breath before you are able to resume it. This is the story of Neri and Yashiro, two step-siblings, who are just trying to find the value of everything they have had to go through in their traumatic pasts. The way the film unravels over time makes you realize that nothing is as it seems. Even the comedy doesn’t have you laughing but cringing in discomfort at the trauma of the characters. In some ways, isn’t that what black comedy should be doing?
One of the main points of the film is the conversations between people that go to great lengths to explain their pasts. Bad Lands starts with Neri and Takagi talking about the organization and their roles in it. This is for the benefit of the audience, but we wish it had been better because, no matter how many times we watched it, that was confusing. However, the rest of the conversations were mainly about the pasts of the characters, and they were very well done. It wasn’t just because the audience got an idea of what had happened, but because it was woven in a way that gave us a peek into the personalities of the characters.
Usually, when people address each other’s traumas instead of their own, that hints at a dangerously volatile relationship, which we do get in Bad Lands. However, this was also a buildup to the relationship between the siblings and why they were willing to go to such great lengths for each other. First of all, Sakuro Ando, as Neri, was impeccable. She had a poker face for the most part, and even when she was showing emotion, it was so easy to differentiate between when it was a means to an end and when it was genuine. We also like how she was written as a positive character, whose moral compass revolved around the bare minimum necessities, like making sure that the people around her were paid well or that they earned their fare even if the mission was a failure. She is completely nonchalant when she talks about what she went through. Usually, that irritates us because it falls into the trope of those characters who are not allowed to be human due to the attitude of ‘getting on with it.’ But in Neri’s case, a look at her entire situation justifies why she has lost emotion for her past. It was the only option she had when all the doors were closed, and she had to accept the help of her oppressor.
Next is Yashiro, and this man has us frustrated for him as much as our hearts hurt that he had to be subjected to such a fate. Ryosuke Yamada was able to bring out the desperate recklessness of the character beautifully, and when Yashiro made his choices, it was easy to understand why he chose his path. The rest of the supporting cast was also on point, and in so many ways, their underwhelming reactions to the events around them made more sense than if they had been shocked out of their minds.
As we went down the rabbit hole of reading about the past work of the cast and crew, we came to know of the director, Masato Harada’s previous work, which is a film named ‘Hell Dogs.’ We haven’t seen the film, but from what we could gauge, crime thrillers based on absurdity and leading to impossible salvation are his forte. Bad Lands has been adapted from a novel named “Weeds” by Hiroyuki Kurokawa, and that makes you gasp when you remember a particular dialogue by Neri, calling herself and Yashiro weeds, who need to survive the ‘trampling.’ We also heard that Neri was a man in the novel, and when you think about it, the gender switch just makes the story all the more dark.
The biggest and only flaw of Bad Lands is that it gets incoherent at times. The writer was in love with the movie, and he insisted that the audience feel the same, despite all the flaws, but we could only get halfway there. The intention of the story was understood, the performances were riveting, and this is not a film you easily forget, yet the ‘wow’ factor was missing, simply because of how excluded we felt during the narrative. That mostly happened during the bits with the crime syndicate, and in hindsight, it should have been the most thrilling aspect of the film. There is always a fine balance to be attained in adjusting to the intelligence of the audience and dumbing things down for them, and achieving that point is a must for a story like Bad Lands. If only the writer and director of the film had not ruled that out immediately, we would have had a ‘must watch’ in the genre.
On a different note, it is worth considering whether the film would have benefited from a shorter runtime. Maybe the film could have started when the two siblings went on the run, and their past was discussed through dialogue to give the audience an idea of what was happening. A good half an hour could have been chopped off the film, and perhaps that would have given us more patience for the resulting disorientation.
Essentially, Bad Lands turns out to be one of those films that you need to watch to understand what it means to be unhinged with the storytelling. That is an essential quality when it comes to action or comedy, yet it is the one place where we see unnecessary restraint. We see a movie like Bad Lands, and our faith in the genre is reinstated, which was previously dismantled by films like Extraction, which were banking on nothing but Chris Hemsworth’s looks to get them the money they were aiming for. It is important to be reminded once in a while that it is still possible to think outside the box. For that factor alone, the film is unmissable.