Badlands (1974)

Last week I watched Badlands , Terrence Malick’s feature debut. It was the first Malick film I’ve seen, but definitely won’t be the last. What a good movie.

True, it may seem a little dated by now. The film was made for a pretty low budget in the early 70s, so gunshot wounds aren’t more than a spot of red paint on the actors’ clothes. Also, Sissy Spacek’s narration, complete with her southern drawl, sometimes seems a little hokey, almost like it’s coming from an old novel. They’re just things you have to get over so you can look at the film for what it is.

And what the film is is wonderful. The performances are quiet and compellingly. Spacek and a very young Martin Sheen are the only consistent actors featured throughout the film, and it’s no problem at all that the film falls on their shoulders to carry. They’re excellent. The characters are so interesting. There’s no flattening of their motivations or feelings – they are conflicted humans who keep finding themselves in deeper and darker situations, and trying to deal with it. They’re not blindly in love; Spacek sees that Sheen’s a bit sociopathic, and acknowledges it. She wishes she was home more than she enjoys being by his side. But there’s no option for her but to go along with his crazy ideas and violent actions.

The best thing about the film is the cinematography. I know that this is Malick’s whole deal, so I’m not really discovering anything new, but no review of this movie would be complete without mentioning the gorgeous shots. Malick takes nature and puts it in the forefront of his movie. Sequences take their time as we explore the surroundings of the characters, from bugs to plants and everything in between. There’s a scene of a house burning down that is filmed in such a way that it becomes almost a dream. In fact the whole film has a sort of dreamlike quality, despite the violence that infects it.

The movie takes no rush to get where it wants to go, but it’s fine. It still has a sense of motion, and is constantly building. Malick gets away with long shots of vistas and nature because every scene builds in the conflict of the characters, and raises the stakes. By the middle of the movie, you know there’s no way these two can turn back. By the end, you wonder how they made it so far.

Some of the music didn’t seem to age as well as the visuals, but it’s okay. Though at times it seems almost melodramatic to have such powerful music accompanying some scenes, it works on a certain level. Most of all, there’s no denying that there is a clear voice and influence behind this movie. It’s not a cookie-cutter studio film to make money, it is Malick’s baby, raised and nurtured by only him, and reflective of his image. It’s a fantastic feature debut, and I’m looking forward to seeing his other three films.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse


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