this week’s TRIBUNE review : ‘Badlands’ (1973) [10/10] – reissue
Starring : Sissy Spacek, Martin Sheen
Director : Terrence Malick
IN 1993 and 2003 I compiled lists of my all-time favourite films, and only three titles appear in both top dozens: Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973); Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror (1974/5), and Terrence Malick's Badlands. You'll often hear this film described as "one of the best American debuts since Citizen Kane" – but for me it's not only significantly better than Citizen Kane (wonderful but wildly overrated), it's one of only four instances I can think of when any filmmaker has "hit the ball out of the park" and scored a flat-out masterpiece with his very first shot.
My use of "he" and the baseball metaphor are apt, because each has been – and this probably says more about my tastes and limited experience than anything else – an American male: D A Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, 1967); Joel Coen (Blood Simple, 1984); Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, 1999) and Malick. The writer-director – a famously publicity-shy academic-turned-intermittent-auteur – has since made Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005) and is now reportedly in production on his fifth movie, Tree of Life.
Set in 1959, Badlands is loosely based on a real-life murder-spree conducted by young psychopath Charlie Starkweather during a 'road trip' around Nebraska and Wyoming – accompanied by his teenage girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. The film version changes the names of the principals, concentrating on the romance between Kit (Sheen) and Holly (Spacek) – the latter initially attracted by the former's (passing) resemblance to James Dean – which is firmly opposed by her father (Warren Oates). Kit promptly shoots him dead and the pair hit the open highways in search of freedom and excitement, fuelled by their diet of true-crime magazines, pop-music and trashy movies – these influences surfacing via Holly's dreamy voice-over, which is frequently at odds with the somewhat grim reality to which we bear witness.
Whereas, say, Leonard Kastle's terrific – and thematically similar – The Honeymoon Killers (1969) emphasises the campy and lurid aspects of its protagonists' bloody escapades, Badlands presents them in terms of lyrical, often transcendent cinematic poetry. Tak Fujimoto's burnished cinematography* is superbly attuned to the particular shades of light in different places and at different times of the day, accompanied by a limpid, almost entirely "found" score of extracts from Orff and Satie. The resulting picture works as a tensely engaging thriller – flawlessly performed, and briskly paced at 94 minutes – but is so full of grace-notes (plus moments of disarming, unexpected humour) that it consistently soars to much higher levels. This is cinema as pure, spellbinding Americana – as fresh and exciting today as it must have been 35 years ago.
BADLANDS : [10/10] : US 1973 : Terrence MALICK : 94m (BBFC)
*with Stevan Larner & Bryan Probyn.