If there’s one thing I and my contemporaries in the field of film criticism disagree on, it’s the work of director Terrence Malick. Everyone I’ve spoken to thus far regards him as one of the finest directors working, bringing something unique and truly mesmerising to film where it is so desperately needed. Having seen the miserably dull The Thin Red Line and the overtly pompous The Tree of Life, I was somewhat hesitant to dive into Badlands; a film that has the definite benefits of an early Martin Sheen and the brazen flamboyance of being Malick’s debut feature. The cards were truly stacked against Badlands, but the great impression it left on me is the one I desired from every other title in Malick’s filmography. Full of beautiful shots that benefit both the audiences experience and also the direction of Malick; it’s the perfect blend to sway those that may not be a fan of his work into giving him a second chance. It certainly swayed me over to the Malick way of thinking, and it presents a more optimistic outlook on exploring his further works.
By all means this is in part due to an Earth-shattering performance from Martin Sheen. Sheen portrays Kit Caruthers, a Korean War veteran and typically rebellious teen that goes on the run with Holly, played by the ever brilliant Sissy Spacek. Loosely based on the true story of murderer Charles Starkweather, it’s great to see Badlands combine fictional storytelling elements with chilling, real life stories. In part due to the great performances our leading duo provide us, the power Kit holds over Holly and her eventual desire to break free from her misdeeds under the command of her boyfriend. It’s a great tug of war that sees a drained Holly and a violently optimistic Kit as the two journey the great American 50s together.
Without a doubt, Badlands is a truly influential film, one that’s basic premise has seeped into the very core of the drama or thriller genre. It presents its characters with such basic mannerisms that it’s hard not to get carried away and taken along for the ride. There’s a fine line between liking the characters thanks to the performances of such villainous, near anti-heroes, but Badlands blurs this line further than any film I have ever seen. It’s despicable to see their actions, but it’s hard not to root for them given that we spend so much time together. It presents us with an idyllic teenage love, one that throws away the comforts of the traditional American lifestyle. We see Kit and Holly build makeshift homes, traverse the country and live their own American dream in their own twisted, unique way.
Maybe it’s just that Malick is better in smaller doses. His shorter works seem to have fared better for me than his lengthier material has. Badlands is a tour de force thanks to the efforts of Malick, Sheen & Spacek, who all bring their A-game in a film that truly defines the 50s period of American history. Bringing life to a horrific true story, and becoming an integral piece of the obsession generations have with grisly murders of the past. Badlands is a great film, a chilling experience that may turn the heads of even the most vehement Malick haters. I know it did for me.