“It’s still the best work I’ve done”
1973 remains a key year in American Filmmaking for several reasons. The year of The Exorcist and American Graffiti, it came at the height of the so called ‘New Golden Age’ of Hollywood, and spawned many remarkable films. Amongst them, two very different, but equally brilliant directorial breakthroughs, those of Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets), and Terrence Malick (Badlands).
Said films, and directors could have hardly been more different. Scorsese, son of Sicilian Immigrants and ‘movie brat’ from an early age, had been baptised on the ‘Mean Streets’ of New York (hence the film’s name), his Catholic upbringing and fascination with cinema immediately evident in his hit saga of Little Italy hoodlums.
The Texas-born Malick (a former Journalist, Philosophy Teacher, and son of an Oil Executive) on the other hand, had chosen filmmaking because it seemed ‘no less an improbable career than anything else’. Such a sentiment fits his later fortunes, Badlands was only a moderate commercial success, Malick’s follow up, Days of Heaven (1978) fared little better, despite both films receiving critical acclaim. The jaded director took a 20 year hiatus (turning down lucrative offers-The Elephant Man and Second Unit Duties on Apocalypse Now, amongst them) before producing his next feature (The Thin Red Line), and his films (a grand total of six in a forty year career) remain either unknown or unloved by most of the cinema going public.
For some readers (especially those familiar with his later, more ‘arty’ films) then, it may come as a surprise that Badlands is not only a well-made, easily accessible, and very entertaining film, it’s an solid debut, and one of the most striking films of the Seventies, though fans of Malick’s will probably get more from the experience.
Loosely based on the story of real life Mass Murderers –Charles Starkweather and Carol Fugate (Previously dramatized in the 1963 film The Sadist), Badlands is by turns disturbing, absorbing, and beautiful in its depiction of a cross country killing spree, and although it owes a certain debt to Bonnie and Clyde (a similarly themed hit six years earlier) Malick makes his own mark felt (for better or worse) immediately.
Late 50’s America, Kit Carruthers (A brilliant Martin Sheen) is an aimless South Dakotan oddball, a garbage man and loner (and possible Korean War Veteran) who fancies himself as an outlaw: “I always wanted to a criminal” he later states. After a chance meeting he falls in with the equally odd Holly Sargis (Carrie’s Sissy Spacek), a Fifteen year old high school student at odds with her father and neighbours.
The pair soon become lovers, and when the efforts of Holly’s father to force them apart end in tragedy, they flee into the wilderness of the American Southwest. What follows is a strange but gripping blend of love story, road movie, and increasingly violent exploration of the American Mythos, though it also works throughout as an accessible, if off kilter thriller.
Badlands is an unconventional, but always gripping, and very clever film, which will not be to all tastes, nor is it not without its flaws.
Malick was lucky the film was even released; Badlands had a notoriously troubled production, made worse by his approach to filmmaking. Operating from a (even then) small budget of $350,000 (large amounts of which were raised outside the industry) the neophyte director eschewed Hollywood protocol, employing a non-union crew, and shooting the film almost entirely on location.
One of the film’s biggest set pieces went wrong in spectacular fashion, seriously injuring crew, and destroying all of the cameras, key crew members fell ill, and three different directors of photography are credited.
Although three years had be spent writing the script, he soon adopted an impulsive approach to shooting, changing schedules on a whim, and jettisoning dialogue at the suggestion of his leads. Such an approach sparked a largely negative response from crew members, by the end of production in late summer 1972, a now obsessed Malick was $35,000 in debt and almost alone in having seen the project through to the end of filming. More re-shoots and almost a year in the editing suite followed before the film’s release in 1973.
Considering all this it is remarkable just how well Badlands works, infact the above often work in the film’s favour. Tightly paced at just under 90 minutes, the film remains the most structured of Malick’s films, a simple narrative and small cast (there aren’t a dozen credited actors) make it very easy to follow the film, whilst the meandering visual metaphors of Malick’s later work are kept to a minimum. Although the limited budget betrays itself occasionally (extras look the same, and don’t always convince, there are several glaring continuity errors and the ‘set pieces’ aren’t massively cinematic), it generally proves a blessing, the film retains a tone of its own, and is blissfully ignorant of Hollywood convention when telling the story (how many other films have you seen containing a mass-murder’s treehouse?), it doesn’t have the sheen or finesse of bigger budget rivals, but due to its freewheeling spirit, its rarely a comparison you care to make.
The dialogue is sharply and cleverly written, and despite its chaotic shooting schedule the film feels like a unified whole, improvised scenes with the lead actors-a dance in the midst of a forest hideout, and a railway trackside argument add to the film’s character, whilst showcasing two strong lead performances.
Although at first glance Martin Sheen (31 at the time of casting) does look a little old for the part of Kit, he quickly proves himself perfect casting. A pleasant lead and terrific actor, he successfully channels the nuances and instability of a murderer, yet remains likeable throughout the film, it’s a hard balancing act, and a difficult part to play, but one he handles with ease (Sheen himself stated he’s never been better, and it’s hard to argue with him).
Kit isn’t a typical murderer (Nor Malick a director, he reportedly told Sheen to ‘think of Kit’s gun as a magic wand with which he bats away small obstacles’)-less an insane killer, more a disturbed kid trying to act sane, admittedly some viewers may find the character a little too odd to relate to, but Badlands is rarely as conventional as it appears, and is generally all the better for it. In any case Sheen anchors the film and shares a convincing chemistry with Sissy Spacek (He would work again with Malick 25 years later on The Thin Red Line, though his scenes were deleted from the final cut).
Sissy Spacek’s Holly is, if anything more effective, remaining passive and directionless throughout the film, seemingly only staying with Kit because she has no better ideas, she makes for a disturbing protagonist, and totally convincing teenager (Spacek, 24 at the time, owes the film rather more than a career boost, she and art Director Jack Fisk have been in a relationship ever since), though admittedly such a role in the narrative gives Spacek much less dramatic meat to chew on. Indeed, despite serving as the protagonist, sometimes she feels like a secondary lead under Kit’s shadow, even though this was probably a purposeful decision by Malick, (and certainly makes sense in the film), it can be a little annoying all the same.
For some viewers the contrasts, and the oddity shared between the film’s leads may be too ‘obviously’ at odds with the simple narrative, whilst this is a point-even in ’73 the young killers on the run thing’ had been done many times before, and (particularly with Holly) the film sometimes tries too hard to prove it’s points, by and large the film succeeds in making the pairing convincing, and the ‘fish out of water’ scenario gripping, inventive viewing.
Visually the film is breathtaking, stunning long shot compositions, and an expertly staged car chase, fight to divert attention from the dramatic landscapes on show (No Hollywood filmmaker quite shoots landscapes like Malick), whilst investing the film with a dreamlike (yet also stark), beauty. It does the film no disservice to admit its gripping even with the mute function on.
For a novice director Malick brings a genuine camera eye to the film, employing naturalistic lighting and putting inventive camera set-ups to good effect, the film (visually at least) has a timeless quality to it, aging surprisingly well (that’s more than can be said for Holly’s fashion sense), and despite the regularly changing crew, it has a professional, seamless tone throughout. A small team of editors worked on the film, some of the cutaways come across as pretentious, and the opening act could have been tightened (feeling somewhat at odds with the later story) , but overall it’s put together very well and Malick’s bold (although some would say inexperienced) approach to direction makes for an engrossing, highly individual experience.
The only other notable role in the film-Holly’s dad is wonderfully played by Warren Oates, (though even as the main catalyst for the narrative, he is given too little screen time to be truly memorable), whilst a succession of bit-parters and extras do little more than fill out the background, but for fans of Malick, the film holds a special treat. The famously publicity shy Director (He hasn’t given an Interview since 1975, and didn’t attend the 1999 Academy Awards when nominated for The Thin Red Line) has two cameos in the film- a brief appearance in newsreel footage and a small speaking role as a salesman, he acquits himself well in both cases, though there is a definite undercurrent of awkward reluctance!
Of course good (and ‘easter egg’) performances generally aren’t meaningful without a clever script, and a strong director behind them, as noted Malick excels in both capacities, though as with much of the film he eschews the conventional.
Though the film largely follows a ‘conventional’ structure (i.e. no flashbacks or complicated narrative arcs) and the sudden bursts of violence generally come as expected (that said one death in particular remains very shocking), Badlands is often a film of contradictions, (the rundown streets of small town America versus the bright outdoors of the West, the energetic musical score accompanying the horrific acts of violence), ‘hidden’ messages, and shrewd metaphors, making the film a joy to watch (even on my fourth viewing I was discovering new things about the story). It makes you think as much as it entertains, and although it will certainly provoke accusations of self-indulgence or pretention, it’s hard to deny Malick knew what he was doing, when such a short film can prove so deceptive.
The brutality of the Midwest is cleverly juxtaposed with the leads pop-culture obsessions-Holly’s dog is shot by her dad for hanging around with Kit (who bares more than passing resemblance to James Dean), the duo Dance to Nat King Cole in the light from their Car’s headlamps like any other couple, oblivious to the dangers of capture by the police, whilst Holly is a slave to Hollywood gossip magazines, testing Kit’s knowledge of the celebrity marriages and Hollywood gossip they are supposedly fleeing from. It’s knowing and ironic (the film finds time for black humour about Kit’s sexual prowess), and far from dating the film has only increased its validity in an age obsessed by celebrity and image.
Throughout the film Malick deliberately keeps a distance, rarely filming in close up and refusing to pass judgement on the leads, even in long shot we aren’t quite given the full story. It’s a clever approach as it gives the leads more room to experiment, and makes the casualness of the killing spree even more shocking.
Holly’s narration is somewhat at odds with what on screen:
‘It all goes to show how you can know a person and not really know them’ is one comment reflecting on Kit after a victim is killed, she frequently focuses on small, irrelevant details (what kit said, where they slept etc) whilst her onscreen persona flits between adult (smoking, fighting with Kit) and child (‘Is that your spider in that bottle?’ is her inquisitive comment to a dying man). Homing in on so many disarming small details could in the wrong hands be a confusing idea, but here it adds a kind of odd romanticism to the film (Holly’s voiceover often reads like a diary entry), it works well with the visual style, and adds a great deal of depth to the film. That said, leaving so much up to the viewer doesn’t always work-in parts the film is vague or distant, to the point of being unnecessarily misleading, and of course, it’s an approach that won’t please everyone.
Although both the leads were grown adults, and there is little outright sexual or violent content, some viewers will find the central concept of the story (15 year old girl falls in love with an unstable 25 year old mass murderer) disturbing, or in bad taste. There is nothing wrong with such having such opinions, but the film never comes across as perverted or glorifying the violence (it seems relatively tame by today’s standards), any unsettlement in the audience hopefully being intentional. But, it is an adult film with adult messages, and it doesn’t pretend to be completely universal.
In conclusion Badlands is a film both frustrated, and made, by Malick’s inexperience and peculiarities as a filmmaker-it’s clever, fresh and brutal, as much as it is poetic, uneven and self-indulgent (a conclusion that could be taken of any of his films-though to greatly varying quantities), it works as a stripped back if lyrical thriller, whilst also serving as a reflective, if uneven art-house essay. The limited budget and non-union shoot generally prove bonuses (visually and verbally it’s hard to find massive faults with the film), though infrequently highlight those failings of above and bring new ones into focus. It is definitely Malick’s most accessible work (but not necessarily his best), and as stated works as a straight forward film, but even with his idiosyncrasies toned down, it remains an acquired taste.
Ultimately though, for all its flaws and indulgences, ‘cleverness’ and hidden qualities, Badlands would be an empty nothing if it didn’t hook the audience emotionally. Though the end result isn’t perfect, and it certainly won’t sway all viewers, through the glue of clever scripting, perfect casting and confident direction, enough of Malick’s oddities and ideas are put together in just the right way to make a compelling whole story, a near classic film, and kick-start one of the most individual filmographies in Hollywood.
Readers who enjoy this film would do well to check out True Romance (1993) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) two similar, and similarly strong features.