It only takes one to ruin everything.
A noir-ish revenge story/crime thriller, Bad Seed puts a few new stylistic touches on a well-worn genre, but never quite pays off on the promise of its premise. Treated with respect by Artisan, you might be surprised to see a small-scale independent film so well presented on DVD with technical quality and extra content.
Facts of the Case
When Preston Tylk (Luke Wilson) learns that his wife, Emily (Mili Avital), is having an affair with Jonathan Casey (Norman Reedus), he storms out of his house. Upon his return, he is stunned to find Emily fatally wounded by an unknown assailant. Suspecting her lover, Preston tracks him down and rashly breaks into his house, swearing revenge, only to be attacked out of the shadows. When a man lies dead, Preston finds himself drawn into a dangerous web of blackmail.
Hard-boiled private eye Dick Muller (Dennis Farina), ever eager for a paying client, signs on to help Preston find the incriminating tape that is being used to blackmail him. Along the way, this dynamic duo fight to solve Emily's murder and perhaps even to help Preston save his soul. Wracked with guilt over his inattention that drove Emily from his arms to her death, Preston must learn how to find the tranquil peace that comes from accepting responsibility for his own faults.
When a bombshell dropped in the very first moments leads to a murder within the first five minutes, you know that Bad Seed is a film in a hurry to grab your attention and hold you there. That approach certainly helps an independent film get noticed and is a welcome departure from a more leisurely story development. However, the rapid-fire power of the one-two punch that opens the film sets expectations for the balance of Bad Seed that few films could meet.
After several viewings, I find it hard to put my finger on exactly where Bad Seed loses the momentum of its opening. The pacing never slows to the check-your-watch point, nor does the lean script have needless padding. What seems to be missing is the energy of believing that Preston is a knife's edge away from being arrested by the police for Emily's murder. That may seem strange, given that there are any number of moments where the Tacoma police pop up close behind Preston, but Bad Seed never closes the deal in convincing me that the police are in any danger of curtailing his liberty. If the police were at least as cunning as baker/lover Jonathan Casey, I would have thought they would have had better luck than our unknown detectives seem to have.
Perhaps contributing to the problem is the intentional choice by writer/director Jon Bokencamp to avoid development of Preston Tylk's background. We never learn much about him outside of his obliviousness toward his wife's infidelity, a preference for fountain coke over Coke in a can and a dislike for rain. As he mentions in one of the commentary tracks, Bokencamp thought that leaving Preston Tylk as more of a blank slate allows a wider audience to relate to his "normal guy" persona. Perhaps you may agree with that proposition, but I found it harder to sympathize with a cipher than if he had a more defined context, even if that context was removed from my own life experiences.
In the acting area, the crucial leading role falls to Luke Wilson (Rushmore, My Dog Skip, The Royal Tenenbaums), but he is hit and miss here. His Preston Tylk is supposed to be a normal sort of guy, but for a normal guy dealing with murder, blackmail and being hunted by the police, too often his moments of pathos and pain are balanced by moments of stiffness and stoicism. Based on his past roles, he's capable of a better effort. Nearly equal to importance is Norman Reedus (Mimic, The Boondock Saints) as Tylk's nemesis. My problem with Jonathon Casey is not Reedus' acting, which is capable, but in his presentation. Casey looks consistently seedy and has a creepy/crazy affect, which detracts from his credibility as Emily's suitor and Bokencamp's intention to present him as Tylk's equally "normal guy" opponent.
I do agree with Bokencamp's commentary remarks that Mili Avital (Stargate, Uprising) is sadly underused in a small role. With quiet appeal, warm emotion and a bright spark of life, she is a fine actress. Completing the acting nucleus is a favorite of mine, former Chicago policeman Dennis Farina ("Crime Story," Midnight Run, Out Of Sight). A grizzled private eye may not be much of a stretch for him, but unexpected sensitivity and his usual gruff, self-assured charm are a treat to watch.
Though I find fault with some of the choices made in bringing Bad Seed to life, I still appreciate the creative risks and enterprising spirit that they represent. You might chalk them up to the learning process of a beginning filmmaker, for indeed Bad Seed began as a four minute Super-8 film that Bokencamp made as a student at USC and represents his freshman effort in the world of feature films. His personal style and potential as a director shows in such touches as effective cuts from audio-only cues to their visual aftermath and a patient ending that takes an unexpectedly bittersweet, moral turn that may (pleasantly) surprise you.
The anamorphic video is of excellent quality. Though Bad Seed is an independent film of modest means compared to Hollywood behemoths, the sharp, pristine print would put to shame the DVD transfers of many better known films. The heavy use of darkness, gray sky and rainy weather do not give colors many opportunities to shine. When they do blossom, the colors are bright, clean and well saturated. Digital artifacting is thankfully absent.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is a simple front-centered mix, adequate for this small-scale film. Without significant rear surround or subwoofer usage, nothing here is too flashy, but that's okay—it's not that kind of picture. The best part of the audio is the fantastic soundtrack by Kurt Kuenne, also a friend and collaborator of writer/director Jon Bokencamp. Like a skilled chef who knows how to use the right kind of spice, at the proper level and at the correct time, Kuenne has constructed a marvelous score that jumps in to accent the natural tone of a scene to perfection and stays out of the way when it is not needed. If this soundtrack were available on CD, it would be well worth a purchase.
Extra content is surprisingly generous for an obscure film like Bad Seed. The twelve-minute featurette is a well-produced collection of interview, film and behind the scenes clips that is a step above the typical PR fluff. Though I was skeptical that Jon Bokencamp (or most any director) could have enough to say for two commentary tracks, I give him credit for pulling it off! Between the first track with Bokencamp and leading man Luke Wilson and the second with Bokencamp, composer Kurt Kuenne and producer Roni Eguia, the commentaries intelligently cover a wide range of information without becoming too dry or repetitive. The usual director and cast information is fairly detailed as are the production notes. The only sub-par extra is the photo gallery. If a studio wants to include one, fine, but make it extensive and not just a scant fourteen pictures, as is the case here. A full-frame trailer is the final "special feature."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Who was the moron who decided to rename this film Bad Seed? I imagine that some suit decided that the original title, Preston Tylk, was not catchy enough for marketing. Sure, Bad Seed has a nice ominous feel as titles go, but the problem is that this title is totally misleading. It has nothing to do with the film and may mislead the unwary customer. Even writer/director Jon Bokencamp is mystified at the new title! This is a small but inexcusable offense in this Court's view. Whoever made that decision should be forced to watch Battlefield Earth until their eyes bleed.
I also wondered why the box fails to indicate that Bad Seed has English captions and Spanish subtitles. I looked far and wide, but this is nowhere to be found on the box, and I can't fathom why.
A compact portion of drama, Bad Seed is deserving of your consideration when you are next in the mood for a film that is subtle, direct, thoughtful and stylish, yet flawed, all at the same time. If you can stand the lack of big names, hugely produced action scenes, and risk-averse writing, then consider as a first step a rental and then a purchase ($25 list) if you like what you see and hear.
A reasonable diversion for an hour and a half, Bad Seed is acquitted. Artisan is found worthy of praise for all but a breathtakingly silly title change, for which it rightfully deserves censure.
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