American Badger (aka The Badger) (2021)

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The badger, we are told at the beginning of Kirk Caouette’s sort-of sequel to his Promiseland (2019), is a solitary, anti-social creature that will fight viciously when backed into a corner – the American variety more than its European counterpart. The hitman Dean (Caouette) gets his nom de guerre from this animal, although he admits, in a sly early conflation of his professional and personal lives, that it was in fact his late wife who first called him ‘Badger’. Where assassins are usually expected to be clean and silent, ex-military, pill-popping Dean is the guy you hire to make a noise and a mess. If getting too close to other people can be a liability in this line of work, it seems much less of a problem for Dean, who, as he reveals in voiceover – a soliloquy – hasn’t talked to any woman in the 12 years since his wife died, and who has been working alone for “4,455 days, 12 hours, 19 minutes”. He adds, “But who’s counting?”. It’s a rhetorical question – Dean himself is the only one counting – hinting at a loneliness and longing concealed beneath his veneer of self-containment. Dean may come over as a killing machine, but we suspect that within his efficient, sinewy body are real if well-hidden feelings, and a desire to bring his solitary existence, one way or another, to an end. 

A morose, philosophical widower whose only company is his pet dog, Dean might call to mind John Wick – except that unlike Keanu Reeves’ well-groomed killer with his luxuriously minimalist house and his favourite classy hotel, the Badger spends much of his time shirtless and smoking in a cheap low-rent fleabag, or frequenting scuzzy nightclubs or shabby warehouses in pursuit of his bottom-feeding gangland targets. Where mannered set design made the urban landscape through which Wick travels a place of pure artifice, in American Badger (aka The Badger), Vancouver is just Vancouver, and the woozy stylisation is brought less by the prosaic location than by editor Shun Ando’s disorienting cuts and Pieter Stathis’ reeling camerawork.

Dean is hired to take down the criminal ring of Vasily (Michael Kopsa) an organisation which deals in sex, drugs and child pornography – and in order to get information on Vasily, he is instructed to get close to Marcella Horvathova (Andrea Stefancikova), a Slovakian abducted as a teenager and forced into sex work under the name ‘Velvet’ (Velvet and Vasily are both characters carried over from Promiseland). From here on in, we are left guessing if the relationship that forms between Marcella and Dean, drawn together as much by their mutual isolation as by Dean’s covert work, is real or pretence, even as we hear them speculating about the nature of life, death, dreams and reality. When Dean is ordered to dispatch Marcella, it is unclear whether our inscrutable antihero wants to fuck, marry or kill the cam girl – but he does teach her to use a firearm and to stand up for herself, while revealing his own death wish by brazenly bringing a knife to a gunfight. The wheels of fate are in motion, and this quietly unhappy badger is cornering himself.   

Writer/director/lead Caouette has a long history of providing stunts and fight choreography for big Hollywood titles, and needless to say the hit sequences here – designed by Caouette – are brutally kinetic and hyperviolent (and borrow, for their climax, the hammer play from The Raid 2). Yet for all this, American Badger feels less like an action flick than a moody film noir, complete with an existential hero, a femme fatale, and a resigned fatalism. “Let’s heal the divide,” reads a sign on a wall near the park bench where Dean likes to smoke and think. While it may be too late for the sociopathic hitman to find his own healing, there are others in need of revenge and redemption.

strap: Kirk Caouette’s ‘hit’ movie is all at once bloody action extravaganza and moody existential noir

© Anton Bitel