When Shelly (Jillian Leigh) gets a call, out of the blue, from her estranged friend Alex (Augie Duke), she has plenty of ideas about why Alex might want to meet, but kidnapping and extortion are not high on the list. It turns out, Alex, along with her brother Kip (Patrick Cronen), and a third woman, Jane (Sasha Higgins), Alex has devised a plan to get back at her ex, Liam (Sam Boxleitner), a serial philanderer who also screwed Jane over. All they need is a third woman to wear the polka-dotted dress that will catch Liam's eye, and they can set about kidnapping him and forcing him to fork over the $2 million in his bank account -- just a fraction of his family's fortune -- in exchange for not dropping incriminating photos of his infidelity onto his doorstep for his wife and daughter to find. Shelly is living in a shanty town and knows that she and her daughter could really use $500,000, so she reluctantly agrees. Of course, as anyone who's ever seen a movie can guess, things don't go according to plan...
The Badger Game has a handful of things going for it, namely a generally talented cast, but as a whole, the movie fails to bring anything new to the horror-thriller genre, telegraphing each one of its twists and turns through predictable screenwriting, bad character development, and lazy or convenient coincidences.
If there is a crucial element in The Badger Game's plot that might have developed into a more interesting movie, it's that Alex's desire to get back at Liam isn't just anger, but true heartbreak. Although writer / directors Joshua Wagner and Thomas Zambeck don't include as much interaction between the two of them as they ought to in order to really develop this backstory, Duke and Boxleitner's performances are two of the movie's best. Duke manages to capture a recklessness or impetuousness in Alex without necessarily making her seem like an idiot -- you believe she's spent time developing her scheme, and that both she and Jane are in it for reasons that a meathead like Kip could never understand. Boxleitner, on the other hand, is mostly funny, conveying a bitter, pathetic desperation after his kidnapping that makes the character among the movie's most colorful, while leaving room for ambiguity as to whether or not his confessions to Alex that he loved her too and really did want to leave his wife are true or not (although, there does seem to be at least one moment where Wagner and Zambeck treat this as an actual, sympathetic excuse for Liam to run around cheating, which, nope).
Sadly, everything else about the movie is predicated on obvious and tired developments that are less an outcome of the characters being placed in the situation than they are the creation of characters designed to do dumb things. Kip, in particular, is the movie's downfall, an aggressively stupid asshole who believes all women are in love with him, won't take no for an answer, and is pretty much always wrong at any opportunity, for any reason. The movie's first plot twist occurs while he's creating a situation through his aggressiveness that it's hard to believe anyone would stand for. That leads to another development that goes past average stupidity and coincidence, which in and of itself is already built on a awkward loose thread that maybe could have felt realistic but is revealed so suddenly that someone walking in front of the camera holding a sign would have been just as subtle. As the movie drags on, both Kip and even Jane -- a former addict -- fall into autopilot patterns, wandering around the house with little to do but make the situation worse for everyone with bad ideas and impulsive actions.
There is the quote or philosophy attributed to David Mamet that says a good story's ending should be seen as both unpredictable and inevitable. The Badger Game, modeling itself on other kidnapping horror-thrillers, have crafted a movie that wants to be both of those things, but only manages the latter. The presence of a wild card character can't be a thriller's only ace in the hole -- every character has to be their own wild card, all acting on their own equally different impulses. By the time the movie finally lets one other character act on their impulses in addition to having them, the film is almost over.
The Badger Game gets stylish but somewhat sparse artwork featuring an illustration of the movie's four main characters wearing the animal masks, done up with red, white, and black. It's a striking bit of imagery, but I don't know why the four are so small within the "frame" of the cover. The single-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Vortex Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
The Badger Game was clearly shot on a low budget, and although the movie occasionally achieves a certain polished quality, the Blu-ray's 1.85:1 1080p AVC and Dolby TrueHD 5.1 presentation tend to give away its technical shortcomings. The film has a distinctly digital appearance, especially in terms of the occasional amount of obvious motion blur, slight aliasing around the edges of faces and objects in extreme close-up, and anemic contrast levels, especially during extremely dark scenes, which can become incomprehensibly murky. Colors offer a decent pop but there's a certain artificial (or perhaps overly authentic) immediacy to the look of most of the movie that is generally associated with consumer-grade digital video. The clarity of the original audio recording often varies, especially when characters are not close to the camera, with environmental echo often working its way into the sound of dialogue delivered off-camera or by people farther away from it, and the movie's somewhat irritating original score is not balanced well with the dialogue, sometimes sounding as if the music is prioritized over the dialogue when it's clear the dialogue is meant to be the focal point of a scene. English subtitles are also included.
Two audio commentaries are included. The first features writer/directors Joshua Wagner and Thomas Zambeck, and composer London May. the conversation is mostly dominated by Wagner and Zambeck, who talk primarily about the development of the screenplay in relation to the story and the characters, and the challenges of mounting the film on a low budget in terms of location and logistical challenges. The second includes actors Augie Duke, Jillian Leigh, and Sasha Higgins. This track is more conversational and anecdotal, reflecting on specific memories of the set, what attracted them to their characters or the importance of certain scenes to them, and laughing about or praising their co-stars and the directors.
The disc rounds out with a short selection of cast and crew interviews from the Los Angeles premiere (6:23).
The Badger Game has a germ of ideas and even some of the right pieces on the board, but some of the pieces move themselves rather than allowing themselves to be moved in a natural and compelling way. The film wants to surprise the viewer with the character of Kip, whose actions and reactions change the situation, but a single character with so much power becomes a crutch for a thriller like this, one that the filmmakers can too easily lean on when they want something to happen. Skip it.