Director : Terrence Malick
Screenplay : Terrence Malick
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1973
Stars : Martin Sheen (Kit), Sissy Spacek (Holly), Warren Oates (Father), Ramon Bieri (Cato), Alan Vint (Deputy), Gary Littlejohn (Sheriff), John Carter (Rich Man), Bryan Montgomery (Boy), Gail Threlkeld (Girl), Charles Fitzpatrick (Clerk), Howard Ragsdale (Boss), John Womack Jr. (Trooper), Dona Baldwin (Maid), Ben Bravo (Gas Attendant)
Despite having made six feature films over the past four decades, writer/director Terrence Malick has remained an inscrutable figure. One of the most revered of the young directors who made their name in the 1970s as part of the so-called “New Hollywood” (a group that also includes Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg), Malick has remained recalcitrant in his artistic independence, defining his work against the typical allure of Hollywood cinema while creating an almost impenetrable mystique as a reclusive genius via his decades-long absence from interview chairs and red carpet premieres.Interestingly, cinema was neither Malick’s first love nor his initially intended profession. As he said in a rare interview in 1975, after studying philosophy at Harvard and Oxford and bouncing around a number of different professions, including writing for The New Yorker and teaching, “I decided to do something else. I’d always liked movies in a kind of naive way. They seemed no less improbable a career than anything else.”
In the fall of 1969 he enrolled in the two-year Master of Film Arts program at the American Film Institute’s newly created conservatory in Los Angeles, which encouraged a “film as art” approach to filmmaking (Paul Schrader and David Lynch were fellow new students). And it was there during his second year at the AFI that he began work on his feature debut Badlands, a film that, while not initially well received either critically or commercially, has nevertheless become a hallmark of ’70s American cinema and the start of a truly unique cinematic career. While working on the screenplay, Malick took the daring and, at the time, novel approach of bypassing the major studios and independent distributors for funding and self-financing the film by securing the involvement of multiple investors (he raised half the film’s budget while executive producer Edward R. Pressman secured the other half). The resulting film, despite falling squarely into the general category of the romantic-young-killers-on-the-run genre that exploded in the wake of Arthur Penn’s counterculture hit Bonnie and Clyde (1967), is decidedly unconventional: an broad exercise in demythologizing the heady romance of criminality.
Although loosely based on the two-month cross-state killing spree of teenagers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in 1958, Badlands minimizes the inherent sensationalism of its material with a deliberately slow pace, almost to the point of being plodding, and Malick constantly undercuts the potential thrill of on-screen violence by rendering it awkward, vicious, and ugly, particular in juxtaposition with the tranquility of nature. The protagonist, Kit (Martin Sheen), is a handsome drifter with no particular place to go and nothing to do. Described numerous times as being a dead ringer for James Dean, he is a mixture of charming boyishness and cold-hearted killer. He begins a courtship with 15-year-old Holly (Sissy Spacek), a somewhat gawky, underdeveloped girl with freckles and bright eyes that show more curiosity than intelligence, which is evidenced in her banal, almost embarrassingly honest voice-over narration (at one point, she admits she loves Kit because he likes her even though she isn’t pretty and she isn’t popular). Holly’s narration also carries with it an unsettling charge given that it is spoken in the past tense, yet reflects no real emotional involvement or sense of trauma from what she has endured.
Kit and Holly run away together after Kit shoots and kills her father (Warren Oates, who also worked on Malick’s student film at the AFI), who doesn’t approve of their relationship. The singularly unromantic nature of the killing confirms the film’s direct and disconcerting approach to violence: When Kit suddenly pulls a pistol on Holly’s father, you get the feeling that he’s bluffing, and it seems as though he’s never handled a gun before. Nevertheless, he shoots him in cold blood, and by the time the film winds its way to its rather unexpected and anticlimactic conclusion, he will have done the same thing to more than a half dozen other people across two states—all with the same deadpan, uncaring sense of necessity.
While Badlands is a told in a fairly conventional narrative manner, moving chronologically within a clear cause-and-effect logic, it nevertheless displays Malick’s tendency to subvert typical audience expectations, which he would refine and expand in his subsequent films. While Hollywood cinema relies heavily on a psychologically defined protagonist, one whose actions “make sense” to the viewer even if he or she disagrees with them ethically or morally, in Badlands Malick refuses to clarify Kit and his violence. Early in the film, Kit gives excuses as to why he kills people, such as when he kills three bounty hunters searching for him and Holly in the woods where they are hiding. He explains that if they had been police officers, he would have felt bad about shooting them in the back, but since they were only in it for the money, they didn’t matter. After a while, though, he stops making excuses because, for Kit, killing is neither joy nor pain. Instead, he kills for the sheer convenience of the act, thinking of neither the suffering of his victim nor the repercussions that might eventually come down on him. His moral apathy, like Holly’s, is ultimately inscrutable, and Malick never attempts to explain him or his actions with any kind of psychological background. He simply is.
Even though he had never made a feature film before, Badlands nevertheless contains almost all of the characteristics we have come to associate with Malick’s unique brand of philosophical cinema, including voice-over narration and the use of painterly images of nature to comment (often harshly) on humanity and its flaws. In this case, the severe bleakness of the titular South Dakota landscape, powerfully photographed by cinematographers Brian Pobyn, Tak Fujimoto, and Steven Larner, plays as a constant reminder of Kit and Holly’s alienation and the emotional void they inhabit. You get the feeling that, if you could look into Kit’s heart, an endless stretch of badlands would greet you. The film isn’t so much about the presence of evil as it is about the absence of real feeling, and it gives you a chill, one that stays with you long after the film has ended, for better or for worse.
|Badlands Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|Badlands is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Audio||English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||March 19, 2013|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Talk about a long time coming! Given the enormity of Terrence Malick’s reputation, it is shocking to think that we have been stuck for 14 years with Warners’ DVD of Badlands, which was originally released during the snapper-case era in 1999 (Malick has, in the meantime, made three new films, if that gives you any sense of how overdue a new release is!). Thankfully, Warners entrusted the film to Criterion, who has done Malick’s feature debut right with a restored 4K digital transfer, approved by the director, from the original 35mm camera negative. The transfer is, in its own way, a real revelation, at least for those of us who have only seen the film on home video, as it allows its visual brilliance to truly take center stage (it is amazing to think that the film had three different cinematographers, since it looks all of a piece). The image is clear, sharp, and beautifully detailed. The grain structure shifts somewhat from scene to scene, as some of the darker scenes were clearly “pushed” to get more detail, but it always looks natural. Color is outstanding, from the barren earth tones of the badlands to the bright hues of the setting sun and the cold blue of a night sky. The original monaural soundtrack has been transferred and digitally restored from the 35mm magnetic tracks. The sound, despite being single channel, is still rich and full, with a good sense of presence that enhances the imagery.|
|Although not quite as packed as Criterion’s release of Malick’s The Thin Red Line, the supplements on Badlands do not disappoint, although Malick, as expected, is completely MIA. First up is a 42-minute documentary “Making Badlands,” which features interviews with Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, and art director Jack Fisk (who has been married to Spacek since 1974). They talk extensively about the film’s origins and production and what it was like to work with Malick on his first project (not surprisingly, many of the veterans on the production thought he had no idea what he was doing and that the film would be a mess). Additional insight into the film and its production can be gleaned from two additional new video interviews, one with associate editor Billy Weber (21 min,) and one with executive producer Edward Pressman (12 min.). For historical context, the disc includes a 1993 American Justice episode about the Charles Starkweather/Caril Ann Fugate murder spree, which somewhat surprises me given that Malick was so adamant during the film’s production about separating his film from the historical facts that inspired it. The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer, and the insert booklet contains an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda.|
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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