There are few directors working today that can simultaneously stir equal amounts of love and hate for their films as Terrence Malick. In his first 39 years as a feature length director, he has only released five films (excluding the soon to be released, “To The Wonder”). Each of his films have become critically acclaimed primarily because of his overwhelming visual style, as well as his innovative storytelling techniques. His first film was the 1973 crime film “Badlands”. Since it was Malick’s first film, it is obvious that he was still coming into his own. Not because the film is lacking, but because of all of his films, this one has more continuity and structure than his subsequent films. (It probably carries more dialogue as well.)
Following in the footsteps of Arthur Penn, “Badlands” serves as a companion piece to Penn’s 1967 masterpiece, “Bonnie And Clyde”. “Badlands” tells the story of a twenty five year old delinquent, Kit (Martin Sheen), who falls in love with a fifteen year old girl, Holly (Sissy Spacek). When her father (Warren Oats) disapproves of their relationship, Kit kills him and the two young rebels head off on a killing spree, as they attempt to make it out of the country.
“Badlands” is loosely based on the lives of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, who in January of 1958, killed 10 people in just an eight-day span. Although many of the details of this film are different from these real killers, the basic plotline is identical. Multiple other films have also been inspired by this killing duo, such as “Natural Born Killers” (1994) and “Kalifornia” (1993), but of all these films “Badlands” portrays these characters in what seems to be the most accurate (and disturbing) nature.
Of Terrence Malick’s films, “Badlands” is by far the darkest and most disheartening. His other films have darker moments, but typically he also includes redeeming characters to help balance his stories. It is hard to have a connection with Kit or Holly in this film because they have no remorse. Their killings are unjustified, brutal and unnecessary. Every time a new character comes onto the screen, you have the inclination to start screaming for them to run, like you’re watching a “B” horror film. Their brutality and unconditional savagery is appalling.
From a technical aspect, “Badlands” is one of the greatest directorial debuts ever. Malick shows maturity far beyond that of most rookie filmmakers. With the advantage of hindsight, we now know that Malick’s strength will always be in his visual storytelling. Had he been a filmmaker in the silent era, he would be remembered as one of the pioneer’s in filmmaking because he can portray any story with just a fraction of the dialogue, unlike most modern films. You can watch “Badlands”, or any Malick film, without any volume and you will have no trouble following the film. The words are obligatory because the camera is Malick’s voice. His films are visual poems about their locations, characters and even their filmmakers.
Besides a great visual presence, “Badlands” also boasts two amazingly strong performances from its stars. Sissy Spacek was almost completely unknown at the time. Her character seems a bit naive, but it is not acting that feels wrong, but rather the character she is portraying. The character is naïve and inhibited, not the actress. Martin Sheen’s character seems crazy, so it is almost easy to excuse his behavior, but because Spacek’s character appears to be somewhat sane, I am always surprised with the ease at which she walks through the film. For the majority of the film she doesn’t even appear to care that she is connected with such a loathsome creature.
Similarly, Martin Sheen gives a stirring and commanding performance in ‘’Badlands”. He gives glimpses of an insanity that he would later expand upon in “Apocalypse Now” (1979), and his cunningly patient, yet powerfully dangerous demeanor makes him a commanding screen villain. Martin Sheen has often remarked that James Dean is a major influence on his life and career, and it is interesting to note that Charles Starkweather also remarked on his fascination with Dean.
Being a film from the early 1970’s, the music in “Badlands” plays a role of itself. Throughout the film, each song is carefully placed in order to invoke the right moods and feelings. The song that I suppose could be described as the “love” theme for this film is titled, “Migration”. The same theme would be used again to a degree in the 1993 film “True Romance”, which similarly is about a couple on the run, traveling across the country. It is a brilliant tribute to “Badlands” and perfectly conveys the nature of the characters’ relationship.
Jack Fisk was the art designer on “Badlands” and he has continued to work with Malick on all of his subsequent films. Their work together has continued to be groundbreaking and inspirational. Fisk also met Sissy Spacek during filming, and married her the following year.