Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Fifteen


#15 — Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)
Terrence Malick has so solidly secured his place in cinema as the agonizingly meticulous crafter of exquisitely poetic, emotionally abstracted films–with perhaps the decisive argument in favor of that judgment offered by the utterly brilliant Tree of Life–that it obscures the earthy urgency of his earliest efforts. Yes, Malick has a preternatural ability to realize beautiful imagery, just as Steven Spielberg had an uncanny knack for the mechanics of narrative storytelling from the very beginning, but there was also a deep ferocity to his storytelling in his first couple of films, an ability to depict humble, lost soul dreams midway through the process of shattering that still carries a gut punch intensity.

Badlands, his feature directorial debut, is the clearest, most potent exhibition of that side of Malick’s artistry. Inspired by the chilling true life killing spree undertaken by Charles Starkweather and his underage girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate in the late nineteen-fifties, Badlands stars Martin Sheen as Kit Carruthers, a hoodlum who slides into a dying South Dakota town. The very qualities in Sheen’s acting approach that come across as anguished mannerisms in later performance are perfect here, offering a portrait of youthful insolence allowed to fester into something truly dangerous. Kit takes up with a teenage girl named Holly, played by Sissy Spacek back when she was young and brash enough that she could convey naive curiosity with the casual cocking of her skinny hips. While sensationalism is a necessary byproduct of any story involving young lovers who channel their lustful energy into fevered criminality, Malick somehow manages to keep the film centered on the spindle of their unlikely romantic dance, the slow motion seduction of two people who are heading towards the same dead end so may as well hold hands while they do it. That unlikely balance is perhaps exemplified by the plainspoken narration written by Malick and perfectly delivered by Spacek. Those lines piercingly reveal how desperation can be willfully mistaken for destiny.

The interlocking anger and passion of the main characters carries over to the entire film. Malick makes the whole endeavor teeter on the uncertainty of the world he depicts, a world that seems to be corroding from the inside out. Lifetimes shaped by neglect and abuse have evolved to be defined by a compulsion to spread misery. Malick doesn’t need to sympathize with the characters, but he does need to understand them, a goal he realizes with an acuity that transfers fully through the storytelling. The landscape of their individual and shared lives is as bleak and cracked as the famed terrain that gives the film its name. Malick doesn’t view that situation with condemnation, superiority or even overt cynicism. There doesn’t seem to be a grand statement built into the film, tying that moment in time to anything particularly endemic to the American experience. Instead, it is about deeply, painfully exploring the simmering sense of endless loss in people who’ve practically been given no other choice but to embrace the nihilism of a destructive existence. The pictures may be pretty, but they’re still coiling into blackness from the heat at the core of the movie.

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