Inspired by the true story of real-life serial killers Charles Starkweather and Caril-Ann Fugate, Badlands follows the story of impressionable teenage girl Holly (Sissy Spacek) who angers her father (Warren Oates) when she falls in love with an older and rebellious boy (Martin Sheen) in the dead-end town of Fort Dupree, South Dakota. After a conflict between Holly and her father erupts in murder, the young lovers are forced to flee. In the ensuing crime spree, they journey through the Midwest to the Badlands of Montana, eluding authorities along the way.
I don’t know where Malick’s films became so pretentious and self-indulgent, Tree of Life, maybe? But Badlands was a truly exceptional film. Malick’s visual talent is visible from the very outset and the film lured me in with its beautiful cinematography, I will even go so far as to say, the cinematography is better than any 70’s film I’ve had the chance of seeing. And I can’t really put my finger on it but there was a certain hypnotism to the whole thing that had me hooked. I know what someone who read the plot will think, ”This is going to be an unnecessarily violent movie”, that isn’t the case at all, in fact Badlands makes a normal story seem very special. It’s more about an insight into the mind of two people on the run and for the most part it’s just a road-trip movie. However, it’s also a very dark movie and at times disheartening, what I love though is how it perfectly meshes the ominous tone with the quietly upbeat tone and the result is something truly remarkable. Apparently back in the day Malick had an ear for dialogue and there are many moments of deadpan comedy and the narrative and story are very well-balanced. The performances from both the films at the time young stars are very good, but ultimately for me it was Martin Sheen who stood out. With his rugged James Dean-esque, Sheen delivers a magnetic and stirring performance playing a uniquely complex character.
Badlands was a pleasant surprise for me, it was concise and beautiful and for someone who is not a fan of Terrence Malick this film really came through. It doesn’t have any of the Malick excesses many people, including myself hate and it isn’t hard to see why he’s hailed as one of the greatest auteurs of his generation. Maybe old Malick isn’t so bad. I’ll definitely be watching Days of Heaven soon.