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Badlands (1973)

May 11, 2011

9/10 Humdrum Homicides

Not often that one associates the words “brilliant” and “poignant” when talking about killing sprees.

Badlands is about a 25-year-old garbage man falls in love with a 15-year-old small-town girl. They start going steady, but her dad disapproves and forbids her from seeing this trash-throwing lowlife. Not being one to let some judgmental bastard decide who he can and can’t love, the kid guns down her girl’s old man and they hit the road. As they book it over from the woodlands of South Dakota to the mountains of Montana in the hopes of starting a new life together, they meet a lot of folk along the way, and he shoots a lot of ’em while they’re at it with Johnny Law trailing close behind.

So there’s a couple things worth noting about this movie right off the bat. For one, this is more or less based on the true story of one Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate who actually went and did all that grisly stuff in the ’50s before the fuzz caught up to them, gave him the chair and gave her 17 years. The other factoid is that this is the debut effort of writer/director Terrence Malick, a guy that more and more people these days seem to regard as God’s gift to movies. And being that this is the first Malick movie I’ve seen in a long time that I can actually remember enough to write about, I gotta say, the hype ain’t too far off.

Going into this, I wasn’t really sure what to expect or what it was about this movie that would set it apart from something along the lines Natural Born Killers. I mean, it didn’t sound like there was much of a plot and I figured that there’s only so much one can say about two lovebirds on a homicidal rampage that hasn’t been said before. And the surprising thing about this is that Malick doesn’t have a whole lot to say on the matter, there isn’t much of a plot outside of the way they go from place to place while leaving a trail of bodies in their wake, yet those are the very things that make it stand out.

It’s all about the tone with Badlands. Most every movie you’ll come across that features ordinary people murdering folks in cold blood or watching on as their dad gets plugged full of holes by their boyfriend, you can bet that someone involved is gonna have a meltdown. And that’s understandable, nothing wrong with that formula and I’d probably be freaking the eff out too if this was the story of my life, but there’s something flat-out fascinating about the way all of Malick’s characters react to these very circumstances as though they were shooting Coke cans or that they’d been waiting all their lives to bleed out with some lead in their belly. I wouldn’t call it ruthless since these two kids aren’t exactly taking pleasure out of their actions like Mickey and Mallory, it’s more nonchalant and disconnected than anything else.

And that’s the tone I’m talking about, that’s why it works. It’s art imitating life and it revolves around such incomprehensible brutality that can only make you wonder why and how. One of those things that people will always wonder about and won’t get concrete answers for, and Malick’s not out to provide them either. There’s one phrase that Martin Sheen keeps repeating throughout the movie, that “it takes all kinds,” and that’s pretty much what this whole thing is about. There’s no telling why any of these characters do what they do and there’s no telling what the hell caused Starkweather and Fugit to do what they did, it just is what it is. No justifications, no judgments, no heavy consciences, just apathy amidst madness.

You probably need to see it and hear it for yourself to really make heads or tails out of what I’m talking about, but this is screenwriting at its best. This is a script after my own heart, a script that knows how to get a lot out of a little, knows when to shut up, and knows that using your inside voice is so much more effective than a screaming match. And, man, I just loved getting to know these characters, I loved listening to ’em talk about everything from James Dean look-alikes to finding a toaster after dumping a body when most scripts would have them losing their shit and acting a fool. Totally unpretentious and absolutely perfect in creating this very unique vibe.

And good lord is this movie pretty. I remember years ago when I worked as a production assistant on the set of Motherhood for all of three weeks and found myself talking movies with one of the grips (or whatever he was) and he told me that I had to check this out solely because of the way Malick filmed so much of it at the one hour of the day when the sun sets over the horizon and gives off just the right amount of natural light. Not the kind of thing I would ever notice on my own, but it sure makes the scenery look that much more gorgeous and makes you realize how intentional this movie is. Bonus points for showcasing some absolutely wild shootouts and one hell of a final car chase.

Great acting from Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, too. I always forget this, but Martin Sheen was such a badass back in the day and I couldn’t take my eyes off him as Kit. Just a larger than life kind of performance that not only complements the character to a tee but makes for a great contrast to Spacek’s soft-spoken turn as Holly. Come on, it’s Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, that should speak for itself.

Badlands started out good, only got better as it went on, and by the end it left me blown away. One of those movies that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about for weeks and it really is a testament to the strength of subtlety along with so many other aspects of great filmmaking that are rare to come by anymore. Truly is beautiful, truly is poignant, and deserves to be required viewing for anyone who thinks the best approach to writing a script is to rip off Tarantino. A word to the wise: let Tarantino do Tarantino.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 11, 2011 11:01 am

    “Not often that one associates the words “brilliant” and “poignant” when talking about killing sprees.” Yes, absolutely!!! This certainly ranks as a great American film. And, as you touched upon, the cinematography was nothing short of spellbinding. Badlands remains one of my favourite movies as well. Very well written!

    • May 12, 2011 9:42 pm

      Thanks! And you’re totally right, what a great American movie. Definitely one of those that’ll be sticking with me for a good long while.

  2. May 11, 2011 11:45 am

    Smooth write-up Aiden…really going to check this out. I find it funny that Sheen plays a trash man and years later his sons do the same in Men at Work:P

    • May 11, 2011 11:48 am

      Hahaha. Thanks, man, and definitely do. This and Men at Work are pretty much the same movie.

  3. May 11, 2011 5:27 pm

    Great review. It’s the way Malick simply lets moments unfold and observes them instead of trying to make a film that is saying something trite or obvious about its characters.

    I do like this film a lot, but it’s actually my least favorite Malick, so you should totally check out the rest, Especially Days of Heaven which almost entirely exists of magic hour scenes.

    • May 18, 2011 11:26 am

      Have 20 minutes left of Days of Heaven to watch, and it is effing unreal how well he utilizes that magic hour from beginning to end (and thanks for reminding me that it’s called the “magic hour”). Will report back when I finish the rest this week, hope it’s up to your standards since I’m pretty sure you love the hell out of that movie.

  4. May 11, 2011 8:41 pm

    Heck yeah. Badlands is AWESOME. Great write-up.

  5. Blain permalink
    May 12, 2011 2:11 am

    Just watched this for the first time not so long ago. Then watched all of Malick’s other films as soon it was over lol. Just great film making all around. Gets me excited for The Tree of Life .

    • May 16, 2011 12:04 pm

      You said it, man. Plan on watching Days of Heaven, Thin Red Line and The New World before Tree of Life comes out, but yeah, that’s the #1 movie I want to see this year.

  6. HermioneO permalink
    May 17, 2011 5:28 pm

    Martin Sheen was in another film that sounds a lot like this one, called Sweet Hostage. Have to look it up to see if Malick involved.

  7. May 18, 2011 12:25 pm

    Intriguing. Badlands is already on my to-watch list. It has quite a reputation not least for the cinematography. I’m going to push it up the queue after reading your review.

    • May 18, 2011 12:36 pm

      Thanks and good call. Still thinking about it and really deserves to be seen. Let me know you think and thanks for dropping by!

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