There are enigmatic directors out there: names like Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch might be counted as two of the, for instance. But no one, and I mean no one, holds a candle to Terrence Malick. This man has rarely been photographed in the 43 years since his career began and, to my knowledge, has only ever given one interview during that time period. Year ago, when his film The Tree of Life, was nominated for best director at the Academy Awards, the only photograph they had to use of him was nearly twenty-years old.
Malick’s films are known for their beautiful imagery, poetic structure, loose (at best) narrative coherence, and wistful narration. His films frequently are photographed with natural light and dreamy camera movement. Extreme wide lenses, distorted angles, and floaty steady cam footage are the visual trademarks of a Terrence Malick film. Yet here we are at Badlands, the beginning of the road for Malick, and while it manages to be an incredibly different film from the rest of his body of work it still feels distinctly like a Terrence Malick movie.
The story, what little of one there is, involves a 15-year-old girl running off with a 25-year-old man after he kills her father. The two of them meet, fall in love, and after her father discovers this the man, Kit (Martin Sheen), shoots and kills him. The girl, Holly (Sissy Spacek), goes along with him willingly — sort of. At first they move into the woods where they build a giant tree house, much like the Swiss Family Robinson, later they take a man and his deaf maid hostage inside a mansion, and later still they rocket their car along the flat Montana badlands from which the film derives its name. At first the love between these two characters seems real, after all they wanted to be together no matter what, but as the film progresses we realize the truth: Kit is a sociopath and Holly just wants out. At one point, when they live in the tree house, Holly’s wistful narration details her growing detachment from Kit:
“We had our bad moments, like any couple. Kit accused me of only being along for the ride, while at times I wish he’d fall in the river and drown, so I could watch. Mostly though, we got along fine and stayed in love.”
I remember no moment in any relationship which I’ve ever had with someone wherein I wished they would die and I could watch, but whatever. The fine line these two characters march on with one another is the main source of drama for the film, but in order to have a story Malick falls back on piecing together random vignettes of Kit and Holly interacting with other people. Really these character interactions only serve the purpose of detailing Kit’s descent into madness — which any reasonable person should be able to see coming from a mile away — and do little else for the film. Were this a later Malick film, I imagine that he would detail the same descent into madness only with fares drama and fanfare. It’s also a good observation to know that these bursts of drama and violence almost completely disappear by the time Malick makes his next film, Days of Heaven (1978).
Overall, I enjoyed this film quite a bit, and it ranks as one of my favorite Terrence Malick films — The Thin Red Line (1998) is my favorite. It has some of the trademark stylistic choices this filmmaker would later be known for, and yet feels very different from the rest of his films. The acting and cinematic beauty are amazing.