- Terrence Malick’s Badlands announced the arrival of one of cinema’s greatest new voices in 1973. It is Malick’s true debut at thirty (30) years old.
- Badlands opens on an empty alley lined with garage in South Dakota. Malick moved quietly. This has a different, more poetic or lyrical vibe (though not half that of some of Malick’s later works) than Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (just six years before in 1967) or the members of the Movie Brat or New Hollywood movements.
- This film and Scorsese’s Mean Streets debuted at the New York Film festival in 1973—yamma- what a festival!
- Malick casts Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as the lovers on the run. Both actors had appeared in films before, but this made their careers. Spacek is a Texan- and sneaky old (24 here in 1973) but believable as a 15-year-old. It is fascinating that Warren Oates (third fiddle in the ensemble) is easily the most recognizable name in the cast in 1973 (this is just a few years removed from 1969’s The Wild Bunch).
Sheen and Spacek are both dazzling. Sheen’s Kit is a James Dean look-alike. He has that tiny little frame, the jean jacket, the colossal hair. He’s both a heartthrob, and a charming sociopath. Spacek’s (playing Holly) distanced, often unsettling, voice-over is one of cinema’s finest. Even in the scene where she cries, she has that far-away look in her eyes.
- Badlands is not Mallick’s greatest work, but it may be the greatest screenplay he’s ever written. “Gifted writer” is not a compliment often associated with Malick. He’s better known for his photography but he’s also a Rhodes scholar, and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in philosophy from Harvard. Both Kit and Holly are hauntingly detached. The script is filled with intentional randomness. Spacek’s Holly will stop, mid thought, and say “I’ve got a headache”. She admits she “didn’t have a lot of personality” and after a seemingly big dramatic murder moment—Sheen’s Kit hits us with “…that’s the end of the message… I’ve run out of things to say”. Later Holly, via that sublime voice-over, admits “I didn’t feel shame or fear—just sort of-…blah”. This again sort of makes it the anti-Bonnie and Clyde with the Freudian and psychosexual reading of Penn’s and Beatty’s Clyde. Malick here, instead, is starting a long career of showing us the high perfection and beauty in nature (though there isn’t as much of it in his debut Badlands as some cinephiles remember)—and the low ugliness of humanity. Often in Badlands, Sheen’s kit reminds us of the fragility and cold randomness of life. Holly says “I grew to love the forest”. Often, throughout his body of work, Malick’s world is about the meeting of nature and violence.
- That wonderful music motif is from George Aliceson Tipton- I was shocked to find that he didn’t go on to have a really strong career in cinema—most of his work after this is in 1980’s sitcoms (with some catchy tunes).
- I mention it above, but Oates is the biggest star in the cast here in 1973- making his demise and early exit from the film play almost like a Psycho/Janet Leigh-like choice.
I’ve mentioned Tipton’s score, but the musical choices and curation throughout is as genius as anything from Scorsese in this era. You have Nat King Cole late in the film, Orloff’s “Musica Poetica” during the arson scene, and Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange” is one of the best 30 second stretches of cinema in the 1970’s. In fact, that scene–the dance with Sheen’s bobbing hair, white t-shirt and hands tucked into his back pocket while Spacek dances barefoot is cut waaaaaay too soon. That’s a special moment and you hold that for at least a full minute—if not let it play out for the entire song running time. Instead, Malick undercuts it a little (the transition isn’t amazing) to Sheen’s Kit struggling fishing in the next scene.
- Not a major flaw but there’s a weak little black and white sequence I always forget is in the film where Malick takes us out of Holly’s perspective to tell us about the impact of the duo on society.
One of the great frames in the film (and this is not one overly filled with them- especially when you think of Malick)- is at the composition of staggered bodies at the 58-minute mark in the rich man’s house. Spacek is in the background right by the window, the maid is in the background left, the rich man is in the center on the couch while the white furniture coverings give it a true painterly impression.
- Unlike almost everything from Malick after this film, Badlands has many moments of levity. When Kit steals the rich man’s Cadillac he says, “Don’t worry, I won’t let her drive”. He even wipes his fingerprints at his house (which is hilarious at that point in his crime spree) and I just about spit up my beverage when Spacek’s Holly tells us, via narration, that “he shot a football that he considered access baggage.” Haha.
The final half hour is where Malick lets free a little visually and we arrive at the title of the film.
Often, it is just these two lost souls, the splendid voice-over, the music, and the massive great plains.
At the 65-minute mark there is the frame of the moon with Sheen’s Kit—a great painting. A pink sky magic-hour horizon (Malick’s gift to cinema) is to follow.
- You’ll notice three cinematographers credited with the film—how absolutely brilliant and bold for a 30-year-old first time filmmaker, Malick, to be so insistent that he drives off not one, but two cinematographers to get exactly what he wanted.
- A must-see/masterpiece border film