Most crime films are centered on protagonists approaching middle age who’ve found that their dreams can’t be taken for granted to materialize, and this disappointment, tinged with panic, spurs them toward disastrous acts. The heroes of Bad Turn Worse, however, are in their teens, and they’re already driven to commit armed robbery and betray crime bosses who obviously aren’t to be trifled with. This key variation on the noir gives the film a comic charge—suggestive of a more violent Bottle Rocket—that the filmmakers exploit with refreshingly innocent relish. The protagonists are rueful and disenfranchised before they’ve barely left the metaphorical launching pad, their disaffection a sign of maturity as a fashion statement rather than as a process of growth, and the film’s awareness of this pretension serves to effectively update the noir for the post-postmodern millennial generation.
Dutch Southern’s script opens with an inventively simple heist and proceeds to a scene in which two of the film’s three heroes discuss the writing of Jim Thompson. That’s a self-consciously bold move for young up-and-coming filmmakers to pull—even bolder than Brian De Palma’s early quotation of Double Indemnity in his über-noir Femme Fatale. Readers of Thompson know that he looms large over the crime genre; his work has a brutal, propulsive hopelessness that’s never been topped, and that’s only been equaled by a precious few (most prominently and consistently by Donald Westlake). But Southern and directors Simon and Zeke Hawkins are a step ahead of us, as their upstart cocksureness is clearly meant to mirror the poses cut by characters who’re amusingly unable to back up their tough posturing. The Thompson reference primes you for a nihilistic bloodbath, and while things certainly go awry, the film is consistently driven by a sense of absurdist futility, particularly as villains are revealed to be nearly as incompetent as the heroes.
There’s a scene that particularly testifies to Bad Turn Worse’s cynically debauched charm. Bobby (Jeremy Allen White) initially decides to turn his friend, B.J. (Logan Huffman), and their boss, Giff (Mark Pellegrino), in to Sheriff Shep (Jon Gries) so as to expose their conspiracy to rip off the largely unseen crime lord Big Red (William Devane). Shep sits Bobby down in his office, and proceeds to deliver one of those sprawling innuendo-rich bad-guy orations that abound in post-Tarantino crime films. It’s immediately evident that Shep’s corrupt and that he prides himself on his ability to elaborate on said corruption in a fashion that relies entirely on the listener reading between the crude lines. But Bobby, though said to be the “smart one” between he and B.J., simply isn’t following, and he thusly robs the essentially powerless Shep of the opportunity to fleetingly savor the role of comparable Big Bad.
Bad Turn Worse is a toy, a bauble, but it’s a reminder that crime movies pointedly inspired by other, better genre films can still be enjoyable, if they wear their influences lightly and cleverly connect them to something tangibly human. The filmmakers display a confident grasp of their vividly dusty Texas crime-movie atmosphere; the brownish, slightly overexposed color tones subtly recall the faded, pulp paperbacks that have obviously informed the entire project. This technical competence indicates more than superficial homage: The film’s formal beauty informs its comedy with a lonely longing that gradually grows authentic. Bad Turn Worse, at its center, is about a bunch of high school kids who’re beginning to face up to the truth that they’re separated from their peers by class differences, and that some of them get to go to college, while others get to run the shops and work in the fields for people who’ve gone to college. Giff, played by Pellegrino in a hilarious performance that grows in stature and nuance, represents B.J.’s and, probably Bobby’s, Ghost of Christmas Future, as he’s aged into a wolf just smart enough to understand what he’s missing out on, higher up the social ladder. The Thompson quotation turns out to be relevant in a manner that isn’t just a come-on: Bad Turn Worse, in its shambling, unpretentious way, honors Thompson’s anarchic social fury.