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Days of Terrence Malick (Part 2): Badlands (1973)

OK!  As I wrote about last week, after re-watching Terrence Malick’s 1998 WWII film The Thin Red Line, I decided the time had come for me to track down Mr. Malick’s first two films, both of which had gotten so much acclaim when they were released back in the ’70s.  The first of these was Badlands, Mr. Malick’s debut film which he wrote and directed.

Set in the 1950’s, Badlands centers on two main characters: Kit and Holly.  Holly, played by Sissy Spacek, is a fifteen year-old girl living with her father in a quiet South Dakota town.  Her life changes forever when she meets Kit (played by a ferocious, impossibly young Martin Sheen).  Kit is the epitome of cool to her: he is quiet and enigmatic, he’s older (Kit is twenty-five), and he looks and dresses sort of like James Dean.  What’s clear to the audience, though not to Holly, is that something is definitely off about this young man.  During the scene in which we first meet him, working his route as a garbage-collector, Kit seems socially awkward and more than a little weird.  But what I did not see coming was Kit’s tendency towards violence.  That tendency explodes when Holly’s father forbids Kit from seeing her, and only grows from there.  Once Holly finds herself in Kit’s orbit, she gets swept up in an American odyssey of violence and murder.

That sounds like the plot of an exciting action film, but Mr. Malick was after something entirely different.  Badlands is as quiet and weird a film as Kit is as a character.  There is not an inordinate amount of dialogue in the film, and what little there is is fairly banal stuff, not really connected to the incredible events that are transpiring.  Both Kit and Holly are rather still, quiet, almost passive characters.  (Somewhat paradoxically, Kit’s passivity only lasts until he picks up his shotgun.)  Though Kit and Holly are the main characters, the film does not go out of its way to get us to like, or even to sympathize at all with, either one of them.  That cold, almost dispassionate way in which Mr. Malick’s film presents the events we watch unfold is quite striking, and part, I think, of what makes this such a unique piece of work.

Even on the battered version of the film I watched (the image on the old DVD I got from Netflix was a far cry from the gorgeous, newly-restored image of the Criterion Collection’s blu-ray release of The Thin Red Line!), I still found Badlands to be a beautifully shot film.  Mr. Malick’s camera takes the time to explore the incredible vistas of the American south-west, and the shots linger on the incredible plant and animal life found there.  (These techniques would become important stylistic motifs for Mr. Malick’s later films, so it’s fascinating to see their origins here.)

Though Badlands has a far more conventional narrative than The Thin Red Line, it’s fascinating to see Mr. Malick already subverting the audience’s pre-supposed expectations for a certain type of film.  Mr. Malick clearly had no interest in making a shoot ’em up, any more than he was apparently interested in shooting an action-war movie about Guadalcanal.  Though there are certainly sequences in Badlands that are incredibly tense, Mr. Malick never allows the audience to get pulled into any sort of “rah-rah” bloodthirst as we follow Kit and Holly on their adventures.  We don’t engage with these characters — we observe their actions from a distance and with, at least for me, more than a little disgust.  It’s a bold, fascinating choice, and one that immediately marked Mr. Malick as a director of note.

That cold distance also prevents me from being able to say that I really enjoyed Badlands. It’s a double-edged sword.  I’m glad to have seen the film, and I can certainly respect it as a well-made, well-acted, beautifully shot piece of work.  But it’s also not a film that I find myself eager to recommend to everyone I know.

Next up: Days of Heaven! I hope to be back here next week with my thoughts on that film, Mr. Malick’s second movie.

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