Aaaaaaaand the prize for most blandly cynical title change of the year goes to writer/director (& Gwynnie’s little bruv) Jake Paltrow’s slow-burning Sci-Fi/Western/Greek Tragedy, Young Ones, hastily retitled Bad Land: Road To Fury in order to capitalise on twitchy, sweaty antagonist Nicholas Hoult’s co-starring role in Mad Max: Fury Road as a twitchy, sweaty, albino loon.

In a parched near-future America brought to its knees by drought (think halfway between the dustbowl Mid-West of Interstellar and the dog-eat-dog world of The Rover) where water has become a precious commodity, farmer Ernest Holm (perennially twitchy Michael Shannon) ekes out a living for himself and his family, stroppy daughter Mary (Elle Fanning) and soulful son Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee), delivering dodgy booze and supplies to the government contracted “water men” who extract water from deep wells in the mountains and maintain the pipelines that pump it back to the city, bypassing the farm Ernest knows could be fertile if it were just irrigated properly.

While Ernest and Jerome are on their way home from a supply run, the family’s donkey breaks its leg and Ernest is forced to put it down. Later visiting a local robot cattle market, Ernest outbids spoilt little rich kid and rebel-without-applause Flem (twitchy Nicholas Hoult) for ownership of a Simulit Shadow, a robotic beast of burden that looks a bit like a shopping trolley with feet. Already clandestinely courting Ernest’s daughter, Flem also has his sights set on Ernest’s land and he’s not a good loser. As the enmity and rivalry grows between Ernest and Flem, tragedy is inevitable and as the family’s fortunes turn around, life blooming in the wilderness, the ever-watchful Jerome is forced to take drastic action.

Visually stunning, the South African wilderness standing in for a drought-stricken American, and narratively barren, Paltrow borrows the iconography of the West to tell a slight tale that feels like a melodramatic YA reimagining of There Will Be Blood. Punctuated by sudden, sporadic spasms of violence, the film is divided into three distinct chapters, each named after the male characters who drive them – Ernest, Flem and, finally, Jerome – and while Paltrow creates an intricate, believable dystopia, one where mules and robots each serve as pack animals as supersonic aircraft boom overhead, where water is so precious dishes are washed with sand, where a roll of parchment displays a funeral video and where the paralysed Holm matriarch is able to walk thanks to a back brace/endoskeleton that turns her into a robotic marionette, he then peoples his world with bland, colourless stereotypes, each a variation on characters we’ve seen his principals play before.

So Shannon trots out his fundamentally decent but driven man, eaten alive by guilt and his own demons, struggling to keep his family together in the face of adversity while Hoult does that smug, confident, oily, untrustworthy thing he’s done ever since Skins. And just what kind of a name is Flem anyway for the closest thing the film has to a romantic lead? Why not just call him Snot or Bogey or Boogers? Smit-McPhee meanwhile does that big-eyed, soulful, sensitive thing, you know, LIKE HE’S DONE IN EVERY SINGLE FILM HE’S EVER BEEN IN. They’re all decent but they’re not exactly being asked to stretch themselves, Smit-McPhee perhaps faring best in the scenes where his character is forced to journey to the big city, his all too brief interlude with a pretty and resourceful girl (Liah O’Prey) his own age perhaps the most hopeful of the film, undercutting the film’s resolute melancholy with a swooning puppy love. Elle Fanning however is wasted in a role that requires little of her except be treated like chattel by the men in her life – father, lover brother.

In fact the standout performance of the film comes from SFX and puppet designer Clinton Aiden Smith’s mute RoboDonkey, Sim, who is perhaps the closest thing in the film to a likeable character.

Beautifully shot, ponderous, pretentious and glacially slow despite it’s scant running time, Bad Land: Road To Fury almost feels like what you’d get if Werner Herzog made a Sci-Fi Spaghetti Western and the studio then cut half an hour from it. Paltrow’s vision of a dystopian future has ideas to burn, it’s a shame then that it lacks the spark to flare to life.

 

Movie Review: Bad Land - Road To Fury
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