Director Terence Malick is best known for The Thin Red Line (1998) and Tree of Life (2011) these days. But prior to a self-imposed 20 year industry hiatus that began in 1978, he did some remarkable things. Top of the list is Badlands (1973), a subversive crime film that follows two young ones as they give up on society and go on a killing spree.
Okay, so it’s important to stress Badlands isn’t about any real-life incident. It is loosely adapted from the story of Charles Starkweather and the love of his life Caril Fugate – those two did bad things back in 1958.
Other than that, similarities end right there. Although senseless murders of this kind do appear to hold much reverence in America – how can one reject the American Dream!? In Cold Blood had a good think about that, but the ’50s also marked a post-existential, post-WWII era where hedonism was rife and a counterculture movement on the way.
But, plot time. It’s 1959. 15 year old Holly Sargis (Spacek) is living in a dead-end town in South Dakota. Then she suddenly meets a bloody greaser! Kit Carruthers (Sheen) who has some resemblance to James Dean. Holly admires Dean, so she soon hits it off with bad egg Carruthers. Sargis’ father sure don’t like that, though, and there’s a clash!
The young couple fake their respective suicides – they then dash off into the wilderness! For a while, they lead a somewhat idyllic lifestyle living off the land. But it’s not long before they’re caught up in a web of further murders, making them highly wanted outlaws.
You can possibly tell where that’s heading, in a Bonnie and Clyde style extravaganza that still exudes excessive amounts of class for such a gritty subject matter.
It’s scenes like the one below, almost pastoral in its sense of seclusion, that help you take a liking to this young outlaw couple as they reject society. You kind of begin to revel in their naive hedonism and go along with them. But it’s from the young lady’s point of view – she is clear of everything – life is tranquil. Carruthers is the problem. And he knows it.
And it’s that theme of naivety that sits alongside Malick’s assured direction. Whilst the Here’s a master of his art, landing stunning cinematography in the form of a rather downtrodden setting.
But Malick makes this weirdly uplifting, in a creepy, unsettling type of way. And, my word, did he commit himself to the project to achieve the results he wanted.
Now, this was also Malick’s directorial debut. And what a way to start! Fans of his work will attest to his great artistic vision, with many scenes from his films resembling a work of art. With a budget of only $300,000.
He gathered this by asking for funds outside of the industry, plus contributing $25,000 of his savings. Commitment right there. And the result is a cinema classic.
In particular, we love the repeated use of that charming piece of music. It really helped to sell the movie to us – and many other people, it seems. If you’re wondering, that’s Gassenhauer. It’s Carl Orff’s and Gunild Keetman’s Schulwerk body of educational material from circa the late 19th century.
But, otherwise, Badlands truly is a masterclass of direction, acting, and thoughtfully handled material. There’s really not much else to add about such a simple, yet complex, plot – it’s better just to watch it and enjoy a shot of classic cinema.
Although there is one anecdote that lights up the experience. Sheen, decades after production wrapped, admitted he burst into tears whilt driving to the shoot location – pre-filming.
He was aware from the script he was already privileged to star in such an impressive film that would shape his career. And that sums Malick’s directional debut up rather well.