20th May2019

‘Badlands’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Ramon Bieri, Alan Vint | Written and Directed by Terrence Malick

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Terrence Malick’s small-yet-mythic 1973 crime drama Badlands has its troubling aspects – on the surface, anyway – but it is a stunning debut feature. Based on the murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, it’s set in the late 1950s, and it is fascinating to see the period before the Sexual Revolution being depicted from the perspective of its immediate aftermath.

Martin Sheen was in his early thirties and Sissy Spacek in her early twenties when they played Kit and Holly. He 25 and she 15, they fall in love in their small Dakotan town. Holly’s father (Warren Oates) naturally disapproves of their courtship. Kit kills him, and so begins the adventure which to the lovers seems like a lifetime, but in reality covers only a matter of months. They build a treehouse in the woods, living off the land. But when they’re driven out they set a course for Montana and the Canadian border. Many will die on their journey at the hands of the hopelessly controlling Kit. Holly’s infatuation is such that she goes along with it, utterly committed to the man who slew her father.

Committed, but Holly still dreams of another life. Spacek is tremendous in the role, and in truth it’s in her narration that the serious storytelling is done, explaining through typically dreamy Malickian narration the inner feelings of a girl who is entirely captivated. Sheen, meanwhile, is bound like a spring. Wiry and taut, he’s a young man of singular purpose and boundless practicality – the upshot of a stint in the military, it is implied. The glowering Sheen stare is put to excellent use, for it seems like everyone they meet the paranoid Kit sees in crosshairs.

At just over 90 minutes, this is Malick’s briefest film. Befitting of the always-moving, always-anxious nature of its protagonists’ journey, it doesn’t loiter for languid nature shots and it doesn’t wait for someone to whisper lovely things while stroking net curtains. I’m being facetious, but this is Malick long before self-parody replaced profundity; and it is a straightforward narrative, albeit one carrying complexity.

Returning to the film after a couple of decades away, my concern was that Malick might romanticise the relationship between the adult and the minor and insist upon its innocence. (Kit does say that he doesn’t want Holly for sex – a claim that rings hollow by the time they’re necking on the interstate.) But Malick is clear that there is nothing innocent about the relationship.

Holly has simply traded one overpowering male for another. She didn’t hate her father, it’s just that there arrived a coming-of-age moment when his right to possess her naturally passed to another. Murder was merely a transition. Malick’s unsentimental, objective style is hugely unsettling here: Kit’s almost apologetic attitude to killing is both chilling and absurd.

For Holly, it’s not that she doesn’t have feelings, it’s just that she is so inward-looking, and frankly so immature, that she cannot see beyond the hideous opera that is her life. And she certainly doesn’t recognise that Kit’s military training has surgically removed his sense of empathy.

Holly is used to imagining other worlds for herself. She reflects upon those aspects of her life which almost resemble a normal marriage. Indeed, Holly and Kit are a pair of “almosts”. Holly is almost Hollywood beautiful and Kit almost looks like James Dean. Along their journey they almost find places to call home and they almost fit in. They see glimpses of worlds that could be their own: a shack in the plains or a mansion in the suburbs, it doesn’t matter. The mountain is just across the horizon and the train is almost slow enough to hitch a ride. They’re almost on the cusp of a normal existence, if only they can clear the bodies in their path to find their way there.

Badlands is an easy watch, fast-moving and never dull, but it’s also challenging in its themes. Putting aside the respective ages of the protagonists – a factor never rendered sleazy or sinister – it’s the lack of romance that really hits home. It’s anti-Hollywood in the most exciting way; in the way only 1970s American New Wave cinema could ever deliver.

As Kit stands before the cops, being interviewed like a homecoming celebrity, revelling in the limelight, we realise that this is Malick at his most cynical, long before the sentimental rapture of his recent output. So it may be Malick at his most interesting.

Director-Approved Special Edition Features include:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, approved by director Terrence Malick, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Making “Badlands,” a new documentary featuring actors Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek and art director Jack Fisk
  • New interviews with associate editor Billy Weber and executive producer Edward Pressman
  • “Charles Starkweather,” a 1993 episode of the television programme American Justice, about the real-life story on which the film was loosely based
  • Trailer
  • Plus: A booklet featuring an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda

Badlands is out on Criterion Blu-ray today, 20th May 2019.

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