Badlands (1973)

Written & Directed by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick is my favorite director of all time. True, in a span of nearly 40 years he has only made five films, but they are all outstanding achievements and even though The Tree of Life has yet to come out here in Ohio, I can say without a doubt that his other four films, which span from 1973-2005, are some of the best cinema I have witnessed. I also concede the fact that, as with any of my favorites, these films make connections with me that I do not expect to be made with every viewer. Take this film for instance. Badlands is considered by many to be Malick’s best work, so how strange when I will attempt to make the argument that it is his worse, though I still hold it in quite high regards.

In this film we are introduced to Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek). Kit is the James Dean lookalike who comes from the wrong side of the tracks, “throws” trash, and takes a liking to Holly, who is ten years younger than his age of 25. Holly is an all-american girl. She goes to school, twirls a baton, and listens to her sign painting father. So when she begins to fall for Kit, things take a turn for the worse. Kit murders her father, and sets the house a flame, which kicks off a murder spree filled runaway for Kit and the unsure Holly, who knows she loves this man, but is skeptical about his sanity.

Malick is known for three things, at least in my mind: quiet/reflective films, visuals, and voiceovers; he uses all three here to great effective. The film never really features a great deal of dialogue, though it does have plenty of voiceover, which is done beautifully by Sissy Spacek as Holly. It is interesting, and very telling, that Holly does the voiceover and not Kit. I wonder what kind of film it would have been had it been dominated by him rather than her. But as it stands it is her story and that is why the film works. Kit is a monster with a trigger happy finger who gets Holly in unneeded trouble. So what makes the film work is the humanizing factor that is Holly.

At the beginning of the film she is an innocent girl and by the end she is an accomplice in multiple murders which she had no business being involved in. This loss of innocence is extremely telling in the manner in which Kit goes about his ways, so comfortably and care free about the whole situation. Not a whole lot happens in the film and that is why I hold it as my least favorite Malick, but it remains a successful film for the reason that the characters of Holly and Kit are worth spending time with and reflecting with. The situation they find themselves in is worthy of such refelction and Malick’s hand seems so well trained to handle the film and give it just the right time and space to breath and the right pace to tell the story. Sheen and Spacek seem near perfect for their roles as well, and both were still up and coming at that point in their careers. The visuals, which are predominately captured at Malick’s favorite “Magic Hour” are also astounding, though remain as the least so in his career.

It is amazing when I find myself trying to say how Malick has done better, and much better, when at the same time I find Badlands to be a great film. And to think that it was Malick’s first feature film as a director. It is crazy to think that he was a master right from the start.

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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