American pop culture’s love affair with outlaws is as old as the country itself, a place that boasts a rich tapestry of real-life characters to inspire, from Jesse James of the Old West to Bonnie and Clyde in the 1930’s. The latter duo became famous again in 1967 with Arthur Penn’s stylized, violent take on their criminal career, starring an impossibly glamorous Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
That same year also saw the release of a darker vision of killers on the loose, the under-appreciated and quietly disturbing “In Cold Blood” based on Truman Capote’s real crime novel. Innumerable other films have re-worked this terrain since, from David Lynch’s idea of romantic-comedy “Wild at Heart” to Oliver Stone’s over-heated pop “Natural Born Killers”, both from the 1990’s.
But still towering above all others in this arena is writer/director Terrence Malick’s masterly debut, “Badlands” (1973). The story, based on real events, is simple enough. Kit (Martin Sheen), a 25 year-old garbage man meets Holly (Sissy Spacek), a lonely, impressionable 15 year-old small-town girl; together they embark on a cross–country romance slash murder spree.
From the start we can see that Kit is stunted, a childish fantasist obsessed with James Dean, Hollywood’s first symbol of teen rebellion. Kit styles himself like his idol, affecting his speech and demeanor. He almost believes himself to be a Dean-like anti-hero, and spends much of the movie trying to convince Holly and himself of the same. In reality, he is a psychopath, a fact that Malick shows unambiguously in scene after scene in which Kit’s narcissism, paranoia and remorseless violence drives the narrative forward.
Largely told from Holly’s perspective and making extensive use of voice-over narration, the pair’s journey across the stark empty landscapes, through the badlands of South Dakota and Colorado, unfolds in a hypnotic, dream-like manner.
Malick’s use of voice-ever narration has arguably achieved self-parody in more recent films but here it is pitch perfect. Stealing from the master himself, Mark Twain, the narration captures the poetry of the colloquial and the natural rhythms of American speech rarely heard in cinema. The effect is stunning. So too is the director’s use of Karl Orff’s music, which is impossible to hear now without immediately thinking of this film.
On a side note, Malick would go on to utilize these two elements - a teenage girl’s voice-over narration and distinctive classical music - to even greaten effect in his follow-up film ”Days of Heaven” (1978), another bone fide masterpiece.
The universe that Malick portrays in “Badlands” is an empty one, seemingly devoid of much life. Indeed there are strikingly few humans in the film at all, with no more than a handful of speaking parts. This pushes us deep into Kit and Holly’s version of reality, one in which the pragmatic and the grandiose combust with increasing brutality.
The casting of Sheen and Spacek in the central roles was inspired. Neither had yet become movie stars but this film changed that. Sheen, who has one of those great movie screen faces and voices, exudes a sincerity, a trustworthiness, that makes you want to like him instantly, lending Kit a surface charm that’s gossamer thin. Spacek, surely American cinema’s most mysterious screen presence, brings an oft-kilter vulnerability to her role and together they create an indelible atmosphere that feels like a reverie gone all wrong.
Malick is a visual story-teller and a master of his craft renowned, and sometimes reviled, for a poetic style of film-making that is admittedly more obtuse in his last few films. But even his harshest critics do not dispute the brilliance of his debut. With “Badlands” he created a flawless work of art that has become a touchstone for image makers ever since, an essential work of American cinema in which he conjures classic western, pulp and road movie motifs into a spare moral tale of rare beauty.
director TERRENCE MALICK
director of photography TAK FUJIMOTO, STEVAN LARNER, BRIAN PROBYN
cast MARTIN SHEEN, SISSY SPACEK, WARREN OATES, RAMON BIERI and ALAN VINT
words NICHOLAS O'NEILL
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