Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 12/17/05 w/ Additional Edits.
1970s American cinema had their share of heroes in the directors. Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Peter Bogonovich, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, and many more. Then there was one director whose visual style filled with poetry of doom, love, and irony who stood out among them all. Though he would only make two films in that decade before disappearing for 20 years, his work remained to be highly influential in the years to come and since. His name was Terrence Malick, a Texas-born, Harvard-grad student in philosophy.
After attending and exiting Oxford, Malick became a freelance journalist and taught philosophy at another college before finally getting a chance to become a screenwriter after doing re-writes for such films as Deadhead Miles, Drive, He Said, and an uncredited re-write for Dirty Harry (none of the material he wrote was used). After helming a short called Lanton Hills for his American Film Institute studies, he got his first official writing credit for co-writing Pocket Money that starred Paul Newman & Lee Marvin. Then, through independent investors and a non-union crew, Malick unleashed his talents in 1973 with his debut feature Badlands.
Written and directed by Malick, Badlands is a story inspired by the Starkweather-Fugate murder spree of the 1950s about a couple who go on a killing spree across the U.S. Using a voice-over narrative style from the perspective of a young teenage girl running away with a 20-something garbage man inspired by James Dean. Malick brings an elliptical, visual-poetic style to his story while shooting the film with a trio of cameraman and a small crew on a budget that was less than $350,000. Starring Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Alan Vint, and Ramon Bieri. Badlands is a brilliant, seminal crime debut from one of American cinema's most enduring yet mysterious directors.
It's 1959 in South Texas as a garbage man named Kit (Martin Sheen) wanders around town where he meets a young teenage girl named Holly (Sissy Spacek) who both seem out of place with the rest of the world around them. After quitting his job and working in a cattle ranch, Kit and Holly immediately become a couple much to the chagrin of her father (Warren Oates). Disapproving the relationship, Holly’s father tries to end it by several means, which included a conversation with Kit. Then one day, Kit breaks into their house and get her things when he is caught by her father. Carrying a gun, Kit kills Holly's father as tries to figure out what to do while confessing something on record as he burns the home and goes on the run with Holly.
Deciding to hide out near a river in the woods, the two decide to make homes while living off fish and live animals while making traps for intruders. When intruders finally came as Kit kills three hunters and he and Holly go on the run where they decided to stay at a friend of Kit named Cato (Ramon Bieri). Things go fine only that Kit's paranoia gets the best of him as Cato lays dying. Now knowing that he is in big trouble, Kit plans to make headway to Canada with Holly in tow. After putting a couple in a cellar near Cato's home, he and Holly leave where they've now become a big threat in Middle America.
After hiding out briefly in the home of a rich man (John N. Carter) with his deaf maid (Dona Baldwin), Holly ponders what would've happened if she never met Kit as the two leave the house and make their way towards North. Often turning to her collection of media magazines and dreaming of a better world, Holly wonders if Kit does have it all planned out. Even through the plains of the mid-west through South Dakota, Holly wonders if Kit's got the brains to hold a job down. After attempts to try other means of transportation, they continue on the road where after a gas stop, a helicopter catches them. Holly has had enough as Kit makes a run for it only to wonder if he has any time left till a deputy (Alan Vint) finally captures him.
Though it's only an interpretive view on Starkweather-Fugate murders, Malick's view on making the central characters more human while being indifferent to their actions is truly remarkable for its originality. They’re definitely alienated by some form of society whereas Kit has a desire to be some kind of icon and couldn't relate to the trappings of holding down a job or doing something that isn't adventurous. Holly meanwhile, is also bored in her own existence where she only lives at home with her father and escapes through her world of celebrity. Still, it's not a film about killers but dreamers who have no way of fitting into the world only to find themselves doing bad things and realize their own flaws right to the end.
One of the unique ideas of Malick's approach to storytelling is his approach to voice-over narration where it's in the perspective of Holly. Her narration is very reminiscing about how she remembered things while not displaying any kind of moral judgment though she's aware of the bad things Kit is doing. Still, there's a nice humanity and innocence to that narrative approach where in the ending for their downfall, there's an acceptance from those two characters about their own fates. Even though their actions will damn them, it's the acceptance that kind of redeems them. Even in one scene where they hide out in the rich man's house where Kit does something that becomes a development of his character. The development of characters is something that makes the audience seem to like Kit and Holly. It's also something that is part of Malick's genius as a writer along with his unique approach to structure.
On the directing front, Malick takes advantage of the low budget funding he uses by shooting entirely on location. From the quaint, idyllic towns in South Texas and South Dakota to the more broad, plain fields of the deserts and rivers. While his approach in telling the story might be elliptical only to build up momentum, it works since he goes for landscapes and whatever houses Kit and Holly to create whatever situation they're in. The camera movements and shooting is very observant to some scenes where Malick is shooting from feet away while giving the characters time to have fun and be themselves. The use of camera that Malick brings is very poetic in terms of capturing the true look of the American Heartland right, smack in the middle of it. It's truly a down-home American film.
Helping Malick is his poetic, stark vision of the American Heartland is a trio of cinematographers in Tak Fujimoto, Steve Larner, and Brian Probyn. Many of the film's photography has many of what visual elements Malick would have where all the lighting is real with its enormous backdrop of sunlight, moons, and headlights bringing many of the film's exterior scenes to come away with its evocative imagery. The film's interior scenes are also shot with natural lighting with either the sun or lamps to provide the lighting. In many ways, the film's look is truly American where its almost reminiscent of the paintings of those times as it provides one of the greatest technical moments of the film. Helping out in the visual department is art director Jack Fisk, who would become Malick's longtime collaborator, who does a great job in designing many of the film's down-home antiques for the houses, especially Cato's home along with the house that Kit and Holly built near the river.
With its 95-minute running time, the film could've felt or been longer but it's tightly edited by Robert L. Estrin while using a lot of wonderful fade-out cuts for the film's unique approach to storytelling. Sound designer James Nelson also does great work in the sound in terms of capturing the natural sounds of helicopters, guns, and everything around the film. Finally, there is the music of the film that features a couple of songs where they're both used for memorable dance scenes. One song is the very upbeat Love Is Strange by Mickey & Sylvia that provides a very happy moment with that cowbell in tow. Another great music moment is another dance scene at night in front of a car where Kit & Holly slow dance to Nat King Cole's A Blossom Fell. With other score cuts from Erik Satie, James Taylor, and composers Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman, the most memorable score piece that's been used relentlessly is a xylophone-like score cut by George Aliceson Tipton that opens and closes the movie while being played in the middle somewhere. It's one of the best pieces of music ever heard.
Then we have the film's cast that includes some small, memorable appearances from John N. Carter as the rich man who is taken hostage and Dona Baldwin as the deaf maid. Other small roles including Bryan Montgomery and Gail Threlkeld as the couple who gets put into a cellar; Charles Fitzpatrick as a employment clerk for Kit in the film's early scenes; Alan Vint as a deputy who captures Kit and the elusive Terrence Malick in a cameo as a salesman in the scene when Kit is at the rich man's home. Ramon Bieri is excellent in a small, memorable role as Kit's friend Cato who has some great lines in an early scene while his motives later on after what Kit has done becomes questionable as he gives a great performance in his final moments. Warren Oates is also great in his role as Holly's protective, strict father who isn't really a bad guy although he is the reason for her own alienation as Oates brings a memorable performance.
The best performances easily goes to the leading actors in Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. The two together brings a natural, innocent kind of chemistry where despite their bad deeds are entirely likeable and human. There's never a dull moment when those two are together while separately they have great individual moments. Martin Sheen brings a performance that if described in one word, it would be... cool. While his actions as a killer brings an edge to him, Sheen becomes totally laid back after killing someone or morally upset while in the film's final moments, he accepts his role and just acts cool throughout the entire film. Sissy Spacek brings a dreamy innocence to her role while adding a calmness to everything around her, especially Kit while being the more mature person of sorts in the relationship. It's truly a remarkable performance from one of American cinema's finest actresses, who would later marry the film's art director Jack Fisk.
***Additional DVD Content Written from 12/17/12-7/23/13***
When Badlands was first released on the then-new DVD format in 1999 by Warner Brothers, the film was presented with a remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound in English as well as being presented in both full-screen and the widescreen format. It was a decent release for its time but in the years since, the bare-bones edition felt pale in comparison to the subsequent DVD/Blu-Ray releases the Criterion Collection had done for Terrence Malick’s two subsequent features in Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. After years of waiting, Badlands finally arrives in the presentation the film deserves.
The 2013 Region 1 DVD/Region A Blu-Ray presents the film in a new 4k digital transfer by its auteur Terrence Malick with additional help from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who has been Malick’s regular collaborator since The New World. The DVD is presented in 1:85:1 theatrical aspect ratio in the widescreen format with Dolby Digital Mono. The DVD set includes various features relating to the film.
The first is a 41-and-a-half minute interview with actors Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as well as longtime Malick collaborator/Spacek’s husband in art director Jack Fisk. Sheen and Spacek talk about Malick’s approach to acting where he lets them find the characters in the performance as both of them also reveal their hesitations in playing the role. Sheen for the fact that he was 31 when the film was made while Spacek wasn’t sure about using her Texan accent as she had been told for years to drop the accent. Jack Fisk talks about his collaboration with Malick and how Fisk was very helpful to Malick’s vision as Malick was very new to the world of filmmaking. Spacek talks about Fisk’s contributions as she felt helped her be more in tune with her character as they also talk about Malick’s approach to voice-over narration as it’s a very engrossing piece about the film and how it was made as well as Malick’s approach to filmmaking.
The 22-minute interview with longtime Malick collaborator Billy Weber has the editor talking about not just Malick’s approach to editing but also in the way he uses voice-overs and music in film. Weber who was an associate editor in the film talked Malick’s unique style as well as how Francois Truffaut’s 1970 film The Wild Child would be influential in Malick’s approach to voice-over narration. Weber also talks about how this film is different from the films Malick would do later on as this film had more dialogue and more written voice-over as opposed to the looseness that would be prevalent in later films.
The 12-and-a-half minute interview with producer Edward Pressman has him talking about not just the making of the film but also the difficulties of working on a low-budget film. Pressman reveals how he and Malick had met as they were both fans of the French New Wave as well as auteur-driven films as Pressman was in total support of Malick despite the fact that he was a first-time filmmaker. Pressman also talked about the film’s official theatrical release where it didn’t do well as it was first presented in a double feature with Mel Brooks’ comedy classic Blazing Saddles where it got a poor reception. After its theatrical run, Pressman revealed that it took subsequent TV airings and such for the film to find its footing.
The 21-minute excerpt of the TV program American Justice on a 1993 episode about Charles Starkweather discusses the murder spree that would inspire Badlands. The 1958 murder spree that Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate would take part in where eleven people including Fugate’s family were killed in the span of eight days until their capture. The special plays into the infamy of the murders as well as Starkweather’s peculiar behavior as he had confessed to the killings. The special also shows excerpts of Fugate’s interviews in the 1970s and 1990s as she expressed remorse for her actions.
The DVD also includes the film’s trailer and a booklet that features an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda entitled Misfits. The essay discusses the film and why it stood out from a lot of the crime-dramas that was coming out of the late 60s and early 70s while reflecting a moment in time that seemed to have this warped idea of innocence as the film was released during a tumultuous period in America. Almereyda uses a lot of text from Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find as well as other quotes of O’Connor to convey the world that the film’s characters live in and why they’re misfits in some ways. Almereyda also noted the contrast the film had with Martin Scorsese’s 1973 breakthrough film Mean Streets where both films premiered at the New York Film Festival that year as both filmmakers made very different cameos in their respective films. It’s a wonderful essay that accompanies a truly amazing DVD/Blu-Ray release.
***End of DVD Tidbits***
Badlands is truly one of the greatest directorial debuts ever created from one of cinema's most enduring visionaries in Terrence Malick. Featuring phenomenal performances from Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, it is a film that takes the crime genre and adding a sense of Romanticism through its story and visual images. In comparison to the films he would do later on, this is Malick's most accessible as it's a film driven by characters going on the run. It's also his most entertaining in terms of what is expected in a crime, road-film genre like this. In the end, Badlands is a superb debut film from Terrence Malick and company.
Terrence Malick Films: Days of Heaven - The Thin Red Line - The New World - The Tree of Life - To the Wonder - Knight of Cups - Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience - (Voyage of Time: Life's Journey) - Song to Song - A Hidden Life - (The Way of the Wind)
© thevoid99 2011
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