Criterion Discovery: Badlands
Badlands (Spine #651) is the debut film of famous auteur Terrence Malick and stars Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, and Warren Oates. Malick currently has two films in the collection, Days of Heaven (Spine #409) and The Thin Red Line (Spine #536), with a third, The New World (Spine #826), on the way.
Drawing on the 1958 midwestern killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, Terrence Malick tells an ethereal and impressionistic story of yearning, murder, and young love gone sour. Badlands follows Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), a charming and sociopathic James Dean look-a-like, as he and his girlfriend, Holly (Sissy Spacek), drive across the windswept plains of middle America killing people.
Every Terrence Malick film is about people trying to understand their place in nature. Some of his films, like The Tree of Life, take a very hopeful view of of that human search for understanding, portraying man as content to humble himself in the glory of it all. Others, like The Thin Red Line and Badlands, show humanity as reacting violently to its place in the universe. In Badlands, Holly’s meandering and philosophical monologues divulge multitudes about her character and about human nature itself. “One day, while taking a look at some vistas in Dad’s stereopticon, it hit me that I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter, who only had just so many years to live. It sent a chill down my spine and I thought where would I be this very moment, if Kit had never met me? Or killed anybody…” Here, Holly is very clearly grappling with her insignificance in the face of the infinite. She is looking at “some vistas,” grand and almost fantastical landscapes, on her Dad’s stereopticon. Seeing these images, Holly feels very small. Her and Kit’s crime spree has certainly made waves across the Midwest, but in the grand scheme of everything, she is little more than a girl from Texas who, in so many years, would be dead and gone. Forgotten. It seems as if the crimes she and Kit have committed are some attempt at a greater significance, at a real place at the table of immortality. Yet, Malick frames the entire film against vast, breathtaking “vistas.” Kit and Holly drive across expansive deserts as the sun gloriously rises above mountains in front of them. Regardless of how many people they kill, Kit and Holly will never have the staying power and grandeur of a mountain. All people are little in the face of nature. Where people differ, Malick seems to opine, is in how they deal with this realization. In Badlands, Malick portrays these two young lovers as doomed hubrists, dancing awkwardly under the desert night, deep inside knowing that their days are numbered. It is in that portrayal that Malick creates such an original masterpiece with the film.
Most interesting in Criterion’s supplements to the Badlands release is an episode of some old ancient TV program called American Justice that details the escapades of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. It’s tremendously informative and adds an extra eerie layer of verisimilitude to the film. In addition, there’s the usual gamut of Criterion extras, including a relatively interesting documentary on the making of Badlands and some interviews with the producers. The 4K restoration, though, is what really makes the Criterion worth its hefty price tag. Every Malick film is a visual wonder, so watching Badlands in its proper, restored format is essential.
With Badlands, Terrence Malick has created an honest, haunting, and equally beautiful pastoral of human nature at work. It is a sight to behold.
Film Grade: A
Criterion Grade: A
Featured Image: The Criterion Collection