I got on to You Tube after watching Terrance Malick's Badlands (1973) a film I'd somehow never seen before even though it's been around for 40 years now. I really really really enjoyed it. I want to see it again. Maybe own the Criterion Collection edition of it. Screw the maybe part from that last sentence. I definitely want to.
The New World (2005) he told the Pocahontas story as if she were leaf swaying in the breeze. You could fall asleep during the film and not miss a thing. Seriously. Before that was The Thin Red Line (1998) which a lot of people absolutely love. None of these people are me. I found it annoying irritating and confounding. The more recent The Tree of Life (2011) I greatly admired as it had a cohesion to it yet was not afraid to wonder all around the history of the universe and the meaning of life in telling its story. After Badlands was Days of Heaven (1978) which I thought was a terrific film and just to prove it to you I'm going to watch it again in the next week or so. Promise.
So Badlands tells the story of a young couple who go on a killing spree. Actually the guy (Martin Sheen) does all the killing. The bemused girl (Sissy Spacek) is just along for the ride. And what a ride. Movies can take a somber or ugly subject and make it palatable or interesting or beautiful. Malick did the latter in this case. The beauty of the film is such that we do not forgive the heinous crimes. They're more like a narrative tool. The deaths are not sad or shocking. Except when the girl's father (Warren Oates) kills her dog as a punishment. Somehow that's the cruel one. The five people we see getting killed are more like abstractions whose deaths in this case serve the function of driving the story forward. We can't contemplate them. We must just know that they happened. The killer certainly doesn't waste any tears on the dearly deceased.
Sheen is wonderfully understated as the James Dean lookalike who is forever saying "I don't care." And he doesn't. He takes what comes and does what he must or at least what he thinks he must. Consequences are for another time. Spacek excepts his actions because she is young and in love and unformed and curious. It's really a great screen pairing.
Malick's visual style is not bloated here as it later came to be. There are clouds and trees and animals and roads and dust but they are not lengthy diversions from the plot. They are part of it. Would that he'd stuck to that notion longer. He also employs music to excellent effect. Instead of scenes that stretch like the Great Plains (my subtle reference to where the film takes place) there is a tightness to scenes. A length that respects the characters the story and the audience.
If you've never seen Badlands you must. It's like a mash up of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Moonrise Kingdom (2102). Those are two really good movies from a couple of very different directors (Arthur Penn and Wes Anderson). I'll go further and say that the Badlands reminds one of the great Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. Actors read lines hit their marks and move along. They do not pontificate they do not emote they function as part of the film. Yet there is a definite sizzle to the whole 90 minutes a drive a verve and a spirit. There is a lot to see and admire. I give it many many stars.