Billy Bob Thornton plays Darl, a sheriff in a backwater Louisiana town who investigates a murder with plenty of suspects. The film also suffers from too many players.
The opening credits indicate over half a dozen companies and ELEVEN executive producers contributed to the making of "The Badge," and it shows. The film is a mess. Thornton investigates the murder of a transsexual found shot to death in the swamp. The transsexual's wife, Scarlet (Patricia Arquette) comes to town to claim the body, and knows right away Darl does not have a chance of solving this crime.
Darl has other subplots on his hands (take a breath): his daughter is a goth running with the wrong crowd, his ex-wife (Sela Ward) is the district attorney cozying up to the governor running for reelection, his father is a gun toting drunk and former sheriff, his brother (Thomas Haden Church) is gay and Darl helped run him out of town, he is sleeping with one of his deputy's wives, he knows the local bar waitress is not 21, he steals merchandise from wrecked semis and hands it out to townspeople, his judge/mentor (William Devane) has him around his little finger, a former lover (Julie Hagerty) is a born again Christian trying to stop Devane's new area casino, another deputy is recruited to run against him for sheriff, and he cannot find his sunglasses (whew!). Darl and Scarlet investigate, running into one of those conspiracies that can only happen in the movies, or the Nixon administration, and the killer is eventually unmasked.
The heaviness of all these characters weighed on me like a four meat deep dish frozen pizza. I did not take notes about each and every character because that would mean transcribing the entire film's dialogue, and they really do not matter once everything is said and done. Robby Henson (not Benson) has written a top heavy script filled with homages (or borrowed ideas) from films like "Affliction," "The Crying Game," "Flawless," and every episode of "Law & Order" ever made, with a little John Grisham thriller added for spice. If he had trimmed even three or four of these people, the film would have been tighter. Henson's direction has a nice look to it, but he eventually succumbs to speeding up and slowing down his footage arbitrarily, which annoys me to no end. Here is a question I always have about these types of films: If the central cop is always so crooked, and decides the film's central murder is the one time he can redeem himself, why don't the conspirators pay him off to look the other way before he gets an attack of conscience?
The main reason this is not a one star review rests in the sure hands of Thornton and Arquette. Thornton is so sincere and humble in his role, you cannot help but feel for Darl. We watch his life collapse around him (he is dropped from the reelection ticket and falsely accused of statutory rape) and we do sympathize. Arquette's Scarlet is a woman who has lived this life in love with a transsexual, but finds the taunts and violence still hurt. Both actors do an outstanding job, and almost pull the picture off.
"The Badge" is written like a foul mouthed two hour episode of "In the Heat of the Night" meets "The Dukes of Hazzard." Yeah, neither one of those shows ever worked well, either. (* *) out of five stars.