Reviewed by Patrick Cooper
With the exception of Blood Simple and Mean Streets, few debut features in modern film are as impressive as Terrence Malick’s Badlands. Released in 1973 while the Vietnam War was still raging, Badlands is a visually stunning, amoral meditation on loneliness, media image, and a bunch of that transcendent nature-related philosophy junk that Malick compulsively puts in his pictures. While the other two debuts I mentioned are a little rough around the edges, Malick’s Badlands is pretty flawless in its execution. And most people don’t touch on this, but I also think it’s hysterical. There’s no doubt the enigmatic Malick had a clear vision and now, thanks to the Criterion Collection, you can absorb yourself in this hilarious Montana nightmare in brilliant HD.
The story is based on the real-life murder spree committed by James Dean-wannabe Charles Starkweather and his adolescent girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate in 1958. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek (who had never had starring roles before) play Kit and Holly. When we first meet Kit, he’s collecting garbage, offering a fellow garbage man $1 if he’ll eat a dead dog. Then he tries selling some old boots he found in the trash for $1. It’s clear from the get-go that Kit’s a charlatan who’s constantly trying to convince everyone around him how smart he is.
Like some kind of fairy tale encounter, he meets teenage Holly as she’s practicing her baton outside. It takes little convincing to have her wrapped around his finger. She’s instantly charmed on her ass by this strikingly handsome young man who seems so knowledgeable about the world. Through her narration, Holly spends most of the film trying to figure out what’s going on in Kit’s head – including why he pursued her when he could “have any girl he wanted.” After shooting Holly’s dad, played by the late, great Warren Oates (Cockfighter, Race With the Devil), she accompanies Kit on a murder spree through the badlands of Montana.
The killings, of which there are many, are presented in a dry, remorseless manner. Malick provides no explanation for Kit’s homicidal tendencies – although Kit does exhibit some of the characteristics of a textbook psychopath, such as irresistible charm and zero conscious. There’s an obvious element of celebrity involved too. After he’s caught, he relishes the attention paid to him by the police. He gleefully hands out his zippo and comb as souvenirs and lights up when a cop says he resembles James Dean. I don’t think Kit’s a total fame-whore, but once he realizes the public is fascinated by him, he really starts hamming it up.
Badlands is easily Malick’s most hilarious film. I can’t believe more critics don’t talk about how funny this damn movie is. Martin Sheen’s Kit provides loads of eccentric humor – from emotionlessly shooting at a football to building his own rock monument while waiting for the cops to catch up with him, this guy’s a real card. One of my favorite scenes is when Kit and Holly are fleeing a rich guy’s house where they were shacked up. As they’re running, Kit won’t shutup about how much effort it must be to care of such a big lawn. If Malick’s visual philosophizing doesn’t do anything for you (or if you found Tree of Life a major snooze-fest), just read Badlands as a comedy and I promise you’ll have a good time.
Criterion drops about six or seven releases a month and they aint cheap. If you only buy a few every year, make Badlands one of them.
* One of Bruce Springsteen’s greatest songs, “Nebraska”, is heavily based on Badlands. This is important, I swear.
The Criterion Collection presents Badlands in a beautifully restored 4K digital 1080p transfer, in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with uncompressed monaural audio. The transfer looks like your standard Criterion Blu-ray, meaning pretty damn flawless. Dirt, scratches, and other imperfections are obsolete and the amount of detail is stunning. The scenes of nature sound clear and crisp, as does the rest of the film. The car chase near the end sounds particularly strong.
“Making Badlands”: This 42-minute documentary features Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, and art director Jack Fisk. Spacek discusses her acting roots and how her and Malick’s shared experiences growing up in 1950s Texas helped get her cast. Sheen presents some really heavy insight. When he got the call from Malick, it was nearly a religious experience for him. He explains how it was the first time a director “saw something” in him. Fisk details how he researched the film and the philosophical questions presented in Malick’s work. Like most of Criterion’s original documentaries, this one’s totally worth a watch.
Interview with executive producer Edward Pressman: Pressman, who’s produced some seriously kick ass films (Sisters, Conan, Phantom of the Paradise), discusses how he used his family’s toy business as a credit line to produce Badlands, his first thoughts on the script, and basically what a goddamn leap of faith producing this film was.
Interview with associate editor Billy Weber: During this 20-minute interview with editor Billy Weber, he talks about growing up during the Starkweather murder spree, what he believes Malick wanted to understand about the real killer, and how difficult the 15-month editing process was. To put it into perspective: Badlands was 60,000 feet of film, Days of Heaven was 120,000 feet, and Thin Red Line was over a million. Pressman edited them all – what a soldier.
1993 episode of American Justice about Charles Starkweather: This 20-minute episode of the real-crime TV program profiles Starkweather, placing the murders in the context of the time. The real guy was way more ruthless than Kit – he stabbed Caril Fugate’s two-year-old sister (which he claimed was self-defense), as well as her mother. He also sexually assaulted a young girl and killed two dogs. Not cool.