Badlands 1973 ★★★★★

Badlands is, without doubt, one of the finest directorial debuts of all time. It is a lyrical and disturbing road movie produced by a filmmaker who, despite his inexperience, managed to craft one of the great films of the decade in this warped romantic adventure about two young lovers and their senseless killing spree across the Dakota badlands.

Over the course of five decades Terrence Malick has become recognised as one of the greatest filmmakers of his, or any other, generation yet his considerable talent is already present in every frame of his haunting debut as if his skill as a visual storyteller emerged effortlessly and fully-formed with this first attempt. There really are few first films as confident and fully realised as this classic from 1973, and for me it still marks Malick’s greatest achievement as a director.

Badlands is a twisted fairy tale of a film about doomed love and the banality of evil. Based loosely on the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree of 1958, Malick creates a story about a charismatic yet psychopathic young man and his unhealthy relationship with an impressionable 15-year old girl. Together, they share in a corrupted fantasy playing happy families on the lam after killing the girl’s disapproving father. Malick explores their fevered and passionate relationship whilst leaving the psychological motivations of their heinous actions tantalisingly out of reach.

Martin Sheen stars as Kit, the rebellious bad boy and coolly indifferent rebel without a cause. Sheen is young, handsome and magnetic whilst constantly channelling his screen idol, James Dean. He’s a charismatic yet deluded presence who draws an impressionable 15-year old girl into his distorted world view. His moral ambiguity make him an unpredictable and enthralling focus and it is easy to see how he would seduce and charm his way into the life of his naive girlfriend.

That girlfriend is played by Sissy Spacek with her soft Texan drawl and childlike innocence contrasting with the horrific actions she participates in. The film is told from her perspective with her naive and romantic voiceover juxtaposing with the bloody events she witnesses. Although her character remains elusive and blank - an impartial observer to the actions of her dangerous beau - it is her complicit impassivity that perhaps makes her the most disturbing figure in the entire film.

Her wide-eyed narration paints a picture of corrupted innocence yet violence had bubbled under the surface of her suburban life (her father murdered her dog and she killed a pet fish) long before Kit delivered his fateful gunshot and it is this violence that would continue to follow her as the pair became romantic fugitives, searching for their own identities and independence. The subjective viewpoint is seductive and contradictory, their invented idyll (the lovers on the run who make house in the woods) is a fairy tale constructed by fantasists and punctuated by shocking bursts of senseless violence. For all her supposed naivety there is always the nagging suspicion that she is as much a willing participant in the heinous actions as her murderous boyfriend.

It is amazing to see Malick’s distinctive style already present and correct in this first feature. Whilst his familiar elliptical editing is all but absent here the rest of his narrative tricks and obsessions all make an appearance: The poetic and unreliable narration, the dreamy tone (aided by George Tipton’s evocative score) and stunning cinematography that captures the characters’ relationship with nature. It really is a beautiful film whether exploring the early moments of awkward intimacy that are both natural and tender or the detached aloofness they exhibit whilst killing innocent people.

Badlands is a film that is as psychologically rich as it is visually beautiful. With magnetic performances and haunting tone it is one of the defining works of American cinema. No film is truly perfect but Malick comes impressively close at his first attempt.

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