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Badlands - 1973

Badlands - 1973

Director(s): Terrence Malick

Writer(s): Terrence Malick

Cinematography by: Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner and Brian Probyn

Editor(s): Billy Weber and Terrence Malick

Cast: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Ramon Bieri and Alan Vint

Review:

The 1973 New York Film Festival saw the arrival of two pillars of the cinematic landscape, Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick. Scorsese premiered arguably the most influential movie of his catalog, Mean Streets and Malick closed out the festival with one of the greatest directorial debuts of all-time, Badlands. The script was loosely based on the 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, in where the couple murdered eleven people in two states and forever tainted the rose-colored glasses that covered the Americana of the 50s.

Quick note: I say "loosely" because Kit (Sheen), who is the stand-in for Charles, never reaches the perversion of Charles' actions, despite him killing at will throughout the film. 

The story takes place in 1959's South Dakota, but it somehow feels like it takes place on present day as most of the movie is swallowed up in the stagnant beautify of the state's landscapes. For the first fifteen odd minutes, the plot plays out like an off-kilter romantic movie, as we see Kit's unusual courtship of Holly (Spacek). Kit is a twenty-five-year-old garbage man, and Holly is a fifteen-year-old teenager living with her dad. When Holly's father confronts the couple, Kit murders him igniting a two-month road trip that left multiple bodies behind. Malick's script plays out like a movie within a movie, at least in the mind of Holly. She sees Kit as this wild, beautiful man that will take her in the adventure she could never go on without him and falls in love with him instantly. He becomes her leading man, he looks like James Dean, and she plays the part of his leading lady. But as the crimes start to escalate, the fairy tale movie she was playing in her head is shattered, and she sees herself stuck in the situation. My favorite moment of this realization is when Kit traps a couple in the shed and shoot at them through the wooden door. They start to run, and Kit extends his arm to Holly, to run together, and Holly ignores his embrace.

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Badlands is a very Terrence Malick movie. You see all the staples he would refine, or reuse, on his later films. The monotoned narration of Spacek creates a juxtaposition from the violent actions, and the violent actions create a juxtaposition from the beautiful landscapes surrounding the characters. There are countless shots of nature, signaling the beauty of the world when we don't focus on the ugliness of humanity. The use of simplistic dialogue creates a realistic feel to the characters. These staples of a Malick movie are all on full display creating a tone and look that draws you in and never let's go. Despite the slow burn pace of the film, I never once was bored as I was just mesmerized by the mastery of the film language from Malick.

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I mentioned that the movie somehow feels rooted in present time, and sadly this is because our society still creates celebrities out of mass murderers, serial killers, and criminals in general. Once caught, the cops complement Kit him on his looks, as he looks just like James Dean. The National Guard soldiers gather around him, wanting to get a look at the man the myth the legend that roomed the streets taking the lives of innocent men. He even gives them souvenirs, his lighter and hair comb, to remember him by once the "event" is over. The script also touches on how life events can signal the forceful end of our childhoods, as after the murder of Holly's father we see her house burning to the ground.

All of this is elevated by the great performances of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. Sheen plays it as if he is fully aware of all his action, yet surprised at how normal he feels after committing these heinous crimes. The most revealing moment of his character comes when he is hiding away at the rich man's house, and he records himself advising the youth. He sees himself as a celebrity, someone to look up too, just because the law wants to capture him. Spacek is probably my favorite of the two, as her performance frustrates you and invites you in at the same time. She is utterly indifferent to the events occurring around her, yet her voice over completely contradicts what we are watching. My favorite scene of hers is when they are done having sex for the sex time, and she says to Kit; "Did it go the way it was supposed to?... Is that all there is to it?... Gosh, what was everybody talking about?", demonstrating her disconnect from what is of significance to people in society and her.

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Badlands is a timeless classic that needs to be talked about way more than it is right now. Not only does it signal the coming of a great film author is Malick, but it also serves as a template for original storytelling that creates a balance with the beauty and the ugliness of this world. The story, sadly, is still relevant in our society and it should serve, not that we need a fictional one, as an example that we shouldn't make celebrities out of these mass murderers that pop up in our societies. Go watch it, and I cannot recommend this movie enough. Malick is why I love movies.

Badlands is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Go watch it.

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