Monday, June 6, 2011

Make sure my pretty baby is sittin right there on my lap: Badlands (1973)

With no disrespect meant to his other four feature-length films, I will never love a Terrence Malick movie more than his first work Badlands (1973), his haunting fictionalized account of the infamous Charles Starkweather-Caril Ann Fugate murder-spree. Badlands is one of the great American films, a mesmerizing masterpiece that is all the more remarkable whan one considers how relatively inexperienced Malick was at the time of its filming.

Perhaps it is the certain naivety in Badlands that makes it appeal so much more to me than any of Malick’s other films. With Badlands we can still feel a certain freshness and yearning in every frame which can only come with a filmmaker’s early work before they are bogged down with acclaim and expectation. While Badlands is now rightly considered one of the great American films of the seventies it is important to remember that it was an extremely low-budget movie shot quickly by a young filmmaker still learning his craft.

I am attracted to Badlands for a number of reasons with one being my fascination with the horrifying case that inspired it. The Starkweather-Fugate case is one of the most chilling in American history and it is also one of the most cinematic. With Badlands, Malick managed to make both a film that is as unsettling as it is romantic. Like the many films it would inspire such as McBride's Breathless, Scott's True Romance and Stone's Natural Born Killers, Badlands brilliantly walks the line between being a film about criminals and a film about lovers.

Watching Badlands is such a rewarding experience that is a bit hard to know where to begin in describing it. It’s a bit like a dream that is marked by two unforgettable faces, a score that will stay with you for the rest of your life and some of the most breathtaking photography imaginable. Badlands is a film-lovers wet-dream captured in a breathtakingly hypnotic ninety-minute package.

Without trying to take away anything from Malick’s stirring direction or Tak Fujimoto’s dazzling cinematography, I often wonder just how much Badlands would have resonated if it weren't for the performances of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. I mean, was there ever a more perfectly cast film ever made? Sheen, exuding the James Dean like coolness that Starkweather so much yearned for, is astonishing in the film and I think it stands as the best work of a very distinguished career. His unnerving nonchalance is simultaneously charming and terrifying and he finds a real poetry in Malick’s dialogue, that might have felt rather pedestrian in a lesser actors hands. The stunning Spacek is just as powerful with her almost childlike voiceover becoming part of the film's exquisite musical soundtrack. Like Beatty and Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (a film that absolutely inspired sections of Badlands) Sheen and Spacek find a tenderness in savagery and manage to sell what should be an unsellable romance.

With its powerful foreshadowing of what would happen in our mock-celebrity obsessed culture, Badlands arrived in 1973 to a mostly stunned response. Perhaps my favorite reaction came from Bruce Springsteen as the film inspired not only one of his most powerful songs but also set in motion Nebraska, his powerhouse 1980 album that, like Badlands, is one of the most distinctive and great works modern American art has provided in the past fifty years.

I’m a bit baffled why Badlands hasn’t been granted the same kind of attention on home video that Malick’s other films have received. It has never been granted a deserved special-edition release and a Blu-ray, like the film’s jaw-dropping soundtrack, is still missing in action. I must admit that I don’t share the rabid admiration for Malick’s works as a whole that many of my friends do but Badlands will haunt my memories forever.


J.D. said...

Well, if Criterion could strike some deal with Warner Bros. it would be great to see this one given their deluxe treatment as they have done to his previous works. One can hope 'cos the existing DVD has no extras and the transfer badly needs an upgrade. Still, as you point out, it does little to diminish the power of the images in this film. I just watched it again a few nights ago and am still taken with this film as I am with all of Malick's work.

le0pard13 said...

Great spotlight on this one, Jeremy. It's one of the all-time greats that happened to be a TV-movie. Thanks for this.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much to you both for reading and commenting!

Neil Fulwood said...

Lovely review, Jeremy, and some brilliant images. I'm in complete agreement: as masterful as Malick's other works are, it's still 'Badlands' that haunts me the most, as well.

Jeremy Richey said...

Awesome Neil! Thanks so much...