Loosely based on a real life murder spree in the 1950′s, Terrence Malick‘s Badlands is an classic low-budget film that treats its subject matter with poetic detachment and off-beat humor. On the surface, it can be viewed simply as a looses re-enactment of a real-life murderous couple. We won’t find any deep insights on life here, but Badlands succeeds mainly due to its ability to make characters accessible in ways that only an personal memoir might achieve.
- Director: Terrence Malick
- Writer: Terrence Malick
- Cast: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Ramon Bieri, Warren Oates
Kit (Sheen) is a young hooligan who collects garbage. Kit’s a drifter, and when he meets Holly (Spacek), he takes her on a journey that is both aimless and yet purposeful. At first there’s a courtship, but the stakes grow as they go from one violent predicament to another, and it will only be a matter of time before they either pay for their actions or find their own paradise.
Everything in Badlands is casual – the way Kit first picks up on Holly, the way he tells Holly’s father (Oates) about their relationship, the growing number of the murders, and Kit’s interactions with law enforcement after being arrested. Bad things happen in Badlands, and yet the behavior of its protagonists effectively emphasizes that the most important element in the story is their search for a peaceful existence. The differentiating aspect of Badlands with other films about murder sprees is that it blends violence with a convincing level of innocence. The humor has a quiet ferocity. In response to Holly’s telling Kit that her father wouldn’t want her associating with anyone who picks up trash, Kit responds, “what does he know about garbage?” In another instance, unbeknownst to Holly, Kit shoots Cato. When Holly asks Kit whether Cato was upset, Kit responds, “he didn’t say anything about it.”
From the opening narration, Spacek’s voice-over gives the entire film a sincerity. Given the recurring violence throughout, a surprising romanticism threads the film from scene to scene with a poetic literary quality that also serves as black comedy. While surviving alone in a forest, Holly mentions, “we had bad moments like any couple, he accused me of coming along for the ride and sometimes I’d want him to drown in the river so I could watch. Mostly though, we got along fine and stayed in love.” The charm and nuance of their relationship is such that we almost forgive the murder of Holly’s father. Outside of murders they commit, it is interesting how the world they create with each other captivates us despite the ordinary nature of their activities, whether they’re reading together, catching fish, or setting up traps for intruders. That said, Badlands lacks a level of transcendence that keeps it from being great.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Despite belonging to Ebert’s list of “Great Movies”, Ebert’s 1973 review feels as detached as the film’s killer. When revisiting the movie nearly 40 years later Ebert refers to scenes in Badlands as being breathtaking, as he reminds us that nature is not only “deeply embedded in Malick’s films, it occupies the stage and then humans edge tentatively onto it, uncertain of their roles.” Ebert is correct in describing this film as having a mystical quality at times, as the narration demonstrates a level of self-awareness that feels both immediate and nostalgic. A memorable experience, if not an entirely great film.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like Badlands? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Shadow of a Doubt
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Terrence Malick’s Badlands this week, he now has 309 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.