Terrence Malick is a filmmaker whose work has divided audiences all across the board, for there are people who would argue his work is meaningless babble with beautiful imagery and others find poetry inside of his visual storytelling. For the most part, I lean towards the latter and with his debut feature film, Badlands, it feels like so much has been accomplished on the spot even for a filmmaker developing his style. Arguably, this is Terrence Malick’s most accessible work but a certain quality to it has always had me drawn in from the first frame all the way down to the last which always had it standing out in my eyes as a work of beauty. It carries a specific gracefulness that I only wish Malick has been sticking around with as he made more films in the future and even if it were not my favourite of his, it only established something promising coming for the Texan filmmaker.
Loosely inspired by the real-life murder spree committed by Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, Badlands tells a story of Kit and Holly, two social outcasts who fall in love and go on a killing spree within the badlands of Montana. Holly is only 15 years old and she is played by Sissy Spacek – she describes the whole adventure with Kit through her narration with romantic clichés capturing an innocence that only fits the narrative perfectly. Kit, on the other hand, is ten years older and has worked collecting garbage for a living, although his charisma has been defined by his resemblance of the late James Dean. Kit is an especially troubled young figure, but he still manages to charm Holly enough in spite of the incredibly antisocial behavior he begins showing as the film progresses and soon what starts off as a blooming romance only becomes a haunting tale of youth corruption.
While Terrence Malick’s tendencies as a filmmaker have not found themselves fully developed yet, what stands out, however, is the cinematography. One of the many highlighted aspects of Terrence Malick’s films is the imagery, but given as the narrative here is a more straightforward one it could be easy for some to find themselves gazing only at this aspect whereas the story almost seems flat in comparison. To me, however, the beautiful imagery has found itself working its way as a part of the charm that Badlands presents and in its beauty it highlights a sense of discomfort as it contrasts the nature of the story being told. On a psychological standpoint, it’s easy to see what it is that Terrence Malick is aiming for he creates an evidently alienating environment that his two leading characters live within – highlighting the generational divide that places Kit and Holly away from the world around them.
Kit is a charismatic killer as Martin Sheen turns in a charming, if disturbing performance but equally discomforting is the innocent Sissy Spacek as the 15-year-old Holly as her voice narrates the film. Holly’s voice is so evidently innocent but she leaves something haunting on Malick’s end that only heightens its power for the evident contrast between her and Kit comes clear. She narrates the whole story in a romanticizing manner, but her naivete feels alluring in the sense that she feels like one who observes her lover, who she may or may not have enough knowledge on. But this lack of certainty towards Sheen’s Kit and his own morals only makes his distorted worldview all the more fascinating because there comes a beauty out of the contrast between what are seeing and how we are told events are unfolding. If anything, an unpredictable character finds oneself drawn out of Sheen because there’s no certainty towards what is going to come as a result of his actions. This contrast only enhances a psychological profile that the film carries and in turn, feels like a haunting picture of innocence breaking apart – something already found within Holly’s introduction where her father murders her pet dog before getting murdered by Kit.
What’s still fascinating to watch from Badlands in spite of its absence of Terrence Malick’s tendencies regarding his editing style it still establishes a director only developing what they would be known for in their future. In its slow pacing at a length of an hour and a half, what allows Badlands to achieve a sense of success is how Malick establishes a narrative that unfolds in front of the viewer’s eyes almost like a dream. Like the rest of his films he wanders through nature but on a count for greater accessibility the story to which he tells upfront is one that signifies something almost of poetic qualities. This carries a more digestible narrative than most of Terrence Malick’s other films but his growing tendencies have only found themselves of aid when he tells this story of fading innocence, for it sheds light on the brokenness of human nature and their means of finding a retreat from the world around them.
I still remember the day when I saw Badlands for my first time, it was my first Malick film as well as my own first Criterion Blu-Ray. It took myself repeated viewings as well as a greater exploration of Terrence Malick’s body of work to find myself standing where I am right now but even if this is still a weaker Terrence Malick for some, it still feels so much has been accomplished on the spot with the note coming about that it was only a debut film. Few directorial debuts have come around in the form that Badlands does, for it tells a story of corrupted innocence yet still carries something so dreamy in how it is being told for its viewers. I still don’t know how Terrence Malick managed to accomplish something so psychologically and visually rich only upon his debut, but nevertheless it always succeeds in drawing me in from the first frame to the last. Truly one of the best American films of the 1970’s.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Warner Bros.
Directed by Terrence Malick
Screenplay by Terrence Malick
Produced by Terrence Malick, Edward R. Pressman
Starring Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates
Release Year: 1973
Running Time: 95 minutes