Friday, December 24, 2010

Badlands (1973)

          Cinematic poetry is hard to achieve in narrative films, because the normal grinding work of developing plots inevitably requires the inclusion of perfunctory elements that make pure artistic expression difficult. As a result, even the best movies enter the poetic realm for only a few minutes at a time. One notable exception to this rule, however, is writer-director Terrence Malick. His scripts are so spare, and his visuals are so elegant, that poetry is the only word that really describes his style. This was never truer than with his directorial debut, Badlands, which has occupied a treasured place among my very favorite films since I first watched it at film school. In fact, Badlands is one of the few movies that I wish I made, not just because the end result is so quietly overwhelming, but because of the sense I get that making the picture was a rarified experience involving like-minded artists helping Malick express something unique. Even though Badlands is a violent crime story, it’s also a  sensitive statement about directionless youths in the American heartland; few films balance savagery and soulfulness with this much grace.
          Malick’s script is a fictionalized take on the real-life odyssey of Charles Starkweather, who murdered 11 people during a 1958 trek across Nebraska and Wyoming, accompanied by his 14-year-old girlfriend. Badlands changes the names and locations, so instead of a docudrama it’s a meditation on the intersection between American wanderlust and the unknowable darkness in the human soul. Martin Sheen plays Kit Caruthers, a handsome but unstable garbage collector living in late-’50s South Dakota. When he meets sheltered teenager Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek), his latent psychosis and fascination with James Dean’s live-fast-die-young mythology prompt Kit to embark upon a murderous odyssey with Holly as his hapless traveling companion. From the first scene, Malick creates an otherworldly mood, with airy musical compositions, Spacek’s plainspoken narration, and startling audiovisual juxtapositions communicating the idea that Badlands exists somewhere in the limbo between dreams and reality—when Kit and Holly camp out in a remote forest partway through the killing spree, it really does seem as if they’ve escaped the normal world for someplace else.
          Sheen is remarkable in a performance that sits comfortably alongside his acclaimed work in Apocalypse Now (1979); not only does he convincingly play a man far younger than Sheen was during production, but he believably personifies the idea of an twitchy loner who can’t find the right outlets for his angst, charisma, and curiosity. Spacek is unforgettable in a difficult role, because Holly is in some respects the blank slate upon which the audience projects its reactions—it’s to her great credit that we accept her wonderment at Kit’s force of personality, and her slow realization of the horror she’s witnessing. Invaluable ’70s character actors Ramon Bieri and Warren Oates appear in supporting roles, each contributing gritty texture and bringing out different colors in the leads’ performances.
          Although Malick’s subsequent career has produced some of the most beautiful images in American film, he has yet to recapture the focus he demonstrated with Badlands, and that’s part of why it’s the consummate example of his poetic approach: For an intoxicating hour and a half, Malick matches his filmmaking artistry with narrative economy in a gorgeous film without a single wasted frame.



Jamal said...

'Days of Heaven' gets all the acclaim from critics. But I agree with you, this is the Malick film to see.

Joseph Kearny said...

Anomie, aimlessness and disaffection on display; hard to care about the characters and the vacuum that surrounds them. Malick has always been overrated.

Barry Miller said...

It was the single most impactful film of my 70's youth in the decade you are honoring here, and Sheen's performance should not be underestimated either; it's a towering achievement in it's own right and was instrumental to the film's genius. It is inarguably one of the greatest works of cinematic art of the 20th century.

In my opinion, Malick never equaled it, not even with "Days Of Heaven".For me, his critical deification and over-mythologized absence poisoned his ego and sent him into a God-complex that eventually turned his films into mushy and pretentious parodies of themselves, where the actors became less important to him than making sure the sunlight reflected off a leaf with what he told himself would be even more transcendent power than any human being could ever muster, and I sense audiences and critics have been let down by his sinking into what appears to be a very dogmatic New Testament Biblical Christianity phase, in which his later films are steeped. No surprise he's embarking on his version of the life of Christ. He even called Scorsese to ask for some input.

robin said...

I too was introduced to this film in a class... in fact it was the exam film for a course in American Cinema. We were shown it out of the blue and provided with two other screenings we could optionally attend. I used all three opportunities to make detailed notes... studying every frame. (Oh! the lucky souls with DVD players and rips!) Then we had two days to write a paper. The fact that after this grueling task I still love Badlands is really saying something.

Days Of Heaven is a faint patch on this, though still enjoyable. Malick's renaissance has been as an execrable preacher. But one film I will rescue is The Thin Red Line. Despite the somwhat hamfisted poetry, the basic conceit was effective for this viewer.