Terrence Malick’s directing career has spanned four decades. Now that can be a bit misleading since he’s only made six films during that time. Still, that small body of work has been enough to make him one of my favorite directors. For me, a Malick movie is an experience. He’s an auteur who plays by no other rules other than his own and the quality of his films are always at a high level. There are also several thematic and visual distinctions that course through every Terrence Malick picture, stylistically and narratively differentiating them from most other movies.
It all started in 1973 with the release of “Badlands”. Malick was inspired by the real-life story of Clarence Starkweather, also known as the ‘Mad Dog Killer’. He and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate went on a killing spree through the midwest in the late 1950’s, murdering 11 people including her parents and her 2-year old sister. But the similarities between the film and the true story are few. “Badlands” does focus on an ill-founded young romance and the terrible events that follow but it looks at them through a much different lens than the true story would allow.
“Badlands” stars a 33-year old Martin Sheen who looked a lot younger than he was. He’s intentionally given a James Dean look with his white t-shirt with rolled up sleeves, blue jeans, dangling cigarette, and rebel-styled hair. He plays Kit, a rudderless ship with seemingly no direction or aspirations for his life. He’s just quit his job as a garbage collector and you get the sense that he has no idea what’s next.
While walking through the streets of a small South Dakota town, Kit comes across 15-year old Holly (Sissy Spacek) twirling her baton in her front yard. Spacek was almost 10 years older than the part but you would never guess it from her performance. She immediately comes across as an innocent and naïve young girl with a very veiled perception of the world. She lives alone with her father ever since her mother died a few years earlier. I got the sense that that loss had deeply affected her life. Holly falls victim to Kit’s charm and a romance follows, against the wishes of her father. From there, as with most of Malick’s movies, the story takes an idyllic idea and carries it through to a sad and violent conclusion.
In “Badlands” there are several things that Malick doesn’t reveal and several questions he doesn’t explore. For example we know practically nothing about Kit’s past. We also never get a clear idea as to the root of his violence. Personally I think it’s all found in his and Holly’s quest to find where they belong in the world. Malick gives us two characters who you could say create their own twisted fairy tale of existence. They romanticize their lives on the run and never seem to count the consequences or consider the damage the do. They live in a fantasy world of their own making. This evident from several scenes and conversations they have. We also sense it from Holly’s narration which we hear scattered throughout the movie.
In “Badlands” you’ll also see the genesis of Malick’s concentration on nature. Even then his camera seems to gravitate towards beautiful shots of the sun breaking through a leafy canopy, glistening dew on a flower petal, or the lively flow of water in a stream. It’s certainly not as profound as in his more recent pictures but it’s undeniably there. And throughout the film there seems to be a contrast between the beauty and peacefulness of nature and the skewed fantasy world the characters have invented.this subtle dichotomy is never more vivid than in the movie’s well-known tree house scene. I’ll leave it at that for those who haven’t seen it, but it’s a fascinating sequence.
Let me build on that last sentence. “Badlands” is a pretty fascinating movie and it’s a strong directorial debut for one of our best directors. It’s a well written tale of two lost souls dancing between idyllic naiveté and sociopathic violence. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. Again, “Badlands” is an obvious birthplace of Malick’s particular and personal style of cinematic storytelling and that in itself is worth seeing. But there are also more unsettling stories of lost innocence and tragedy from Malick’s pen that are just as vital to making this a great film.