Bad Education makes you wonder what sort of career Hugh Jackman would've had if he hadn't been cast as Wolverine — almost by chance — 20 years ago. In this alternate reality, Jackman would probably still be a superstar, having capitalised on his success in musical theatre to become a respected actor with multiple Oscar nominations under his belt. But instead of starting his career in blockbusters, he'd perhaps have worked his way towards them.
It's difficult to repress the sort of talent that he has. Even without the leg-up that being a Marvel superhero has no doubt provided him, Jackman would've found a way. But regardless of how the dice rolled for him, watching Jackman in Bad Education feels like some kind of reward.
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It captures him in truly spectacular form, exercising sheer charisma and a resounding screen presence in what has to be one of the few times in his career that he has played a legitimate psychopath — the wrinkly yet charismatic administrator named Frank Tassone.
Based on a strange but true story about corruption in the upper administration of a school district, Bad Education is perhaps the strangest metaphor for the current socio-political climate that you're likely to see. It's one thing to find shades of the refugee crisis in Thor: Ragnarok or to notice criticism of American foreign policy in Iron Man, but Bad Education's takedown of Trumpian government is deftly disguised.
On the surface, the film is an unsettling account of how absolute power corrupts absolutely. But it is also a character study, and another reminder that director Cory Finley, at just two films old, has a stunningly unique voice.
Like his debut feature, Thoroughbreds, Bad Education flat-out rejects the notion that it can be confined to a certain style of film. By slithering in and out of several genres — pitch-black comedy, character drama, paranoid thriller — it becomes its own thing.
Finley barely uses a background score, which only amplifies the unsettling tone that he somehow sustains for close to two hours. Because you're never told what to feel, you're left with no choice but to surrender yourself to the filmmaking and performances. Finley does, however, capture a very precise moment in recent history, thanks to the a killer soundtrack — Moby and Dido drop by — and the use of film stock over digital. The film feels like it was made in 2003, with cinematographer Lyle Vincent's visuals twitching with analogue energy, despite rather static frames.
From the onset, writer Mike Makowsky's screenplay leaves a trail of breadcrumbs for the viewer to follow — the film is always a step ahead. This could easily have transformed Bad Education into somewhat of a patronising lecture, but Finley avoids this trap. As the walls close in on Frank from all sides — his superior and colleagues are onto him, as is a wet-behind-the-ears teen reporter, played by star-in-the-making Geraldine Viswanathan — Jackman's performance begins to flicker with a sort of mania.
It's an origin story of a criminal; a man whose progress was arrested before he could do more harm, such as standing for office in higher positions of authority. Bad Education isn't as prophetic as Alexander Payne's Election, but it's certainly worth studying.