Do not be fooled by the title and cover; if you had a look, you may think this is some sort of cheap cash-in on Mad Max: Fury Road (In fact, this films’ title was originally Young Ones). With the near future, desert setting, and the worn out aesthetic, it’s an easy impression to gather. They even have a few other things in common, like a use of classic Western tropes, and even one of the cast (Nicholas Hoult). But Bad Land: Road to Fury is definitely its own film, and a fine little tale of ambition, and betrayal in its own right.
In the near future, the central United States has suffered massive droughts, causing population shifts, collapse of farming industries and more issues. However, many have kept to the land, determined to still make a living with what they have. As such, water management is vital, with new pipelines being potential new life bringers to the area. Farmer Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) is determined to rejuvenate the land to provide a future for his children Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Mary (Elle Fanning). However, he has issues with the boy Mary’s been seeing, Flem (Hoult). It’s more than just being a protective father; Flem was technically the original owner of the land, and still covets it…
It should be noted that this is not a “post-apocalyptic” film; society still exists, it’s just had to make some pretty major changes. The whole thing has gone back to the attitudes of the frontier settling days, with many having to make their own laws to protect what they have. The whole thing, with the mix of old and ultramodern, feels a lot like Joss Whedon’s Firefly in that regard. Indeed, there’s a lot of fine work done with design work of the future technology, in that it’s very strongly based on tech that currently exists. Of particular note are robotic drones, all terrain models used as “iron horses” (another little Western nod) that are modelled after real life experimental robots like Boston Dynamic’s Big Dog. This is a good way of making things believable; showing something that’s currently only experimental at the stage when it’s more commercially available.
This isn’t a sci-fi all about spectacle though, it’s all just the setting for a tale of revenge, coveting and betrayal. It’s a story that takes a while to get going, with all the first half hour being character building, but once it gets going, it’s a superbly done tale. All the cast are at the top of their game, building very believable characters. In particular, Kodi Smit-McPhee has a fine arc, in gaining the confidence to overcome being simply “his father’s son” (with all that entails), to having to make some particularly tough choices regarding the family’s future. The one who really steals the show (and much more) is Nicholas Hoult; his Flem is a most well rounded villain, ambitious, determined, but sympathetic to a degree, and more than a few times out of his depth. His real strength is just having a good head for lies and deceit, and he uses that to the fullest over this story. On the note of characters however, one unfortunate issue that it has in common with old Westerns it emulates is a slight sidelining of female characters, with Elle Fanning regrettably getting little to do that’s not pure stereotype, the one sour note on display.
If go into this expecting some sort of “after the end” action piece, you’re likely to be very disappointed; this is far more like Unforgiven rather than a Sergio Leone western. However, if you’re ready for a more sober drama in a believable future, you’ll find a lot to like about this. Director Jake Paltrow, who’s mostly done TV work before, has made a stylish little thriller that uses a lot of old tropes in a refreshing new way. It’s not that revolutionary, but it does show how much mileage out of classic tropes if you know how. Definitely worth a watch.