Criterion // 1973 // 94 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // March 18th, 2013
In 1959, a lot of people were killing time. Kit and Holly were killing people.
The force of art and nature that is Terrence Malick directed his first feature in 1973, when he was not quite 30 years old. Badlands was briefly an indie sensation -- it got off to an auspicious start at the New York Film Festival but floundered in general release.
But Badlands developed a fan base. That its stars -- Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen -- would go on to become "names" certainly helped, but the bigger draw, eventually, would be the elusive Malick, who five years after Badlands released the critically acclaimed Days of Heaven and then sat out 20 years before his third film, The Thin Red Line.
Badlands has had a couple of DVD releases, but this Blu-ray from Criterion blows them all out of the water.
Holly (Sissy Spacek, Carrie) is a 15-year-old without a lot of friends. Kit (Martin Sheen, Apocalypse Now) is 25, and he's just lost his job as a garbage collector.
When the two meet up, there's not exactly sparks, but there is...something, some kind of attraction. It's not passion, exactly; it's almost a shared dispassion, a mutual detachment that keeps them together.
When Holly's father objects, Kit shoots him dead and burns down the house. He and Holly take off, hiding out in the woods for a while and having...well, not really an adventure, exactly; more like an existence on the run. They both know it's going to be brief, and neither seems terribly upset that it's going to end, and end badly.
I've seen Badlands compared to Bonnie and Clyde, and while it's a reasonable comparison, I don't know that it's all that apt. Yes, both are based on real-life criminals -- in the case of Badlands, Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate -- but while Bonnie and Clyde presented its anti-heroes as glamorous outlaws, Malick offers up Kit and Holly, who are among the most boring anti-heroes of all time.
Which is not to say that Badlands is a boring film; far from it. This is a quirky, engaging work, one that stands on its own as well as it perfectly fits into the Malick canon.
Badlands might be Malick's most accessible film; it's easily his most charming. Malick tells the story of these two young criminals -- one a sociopathic murderer -- as though it's a fable. Spacek's Holly narrates, using the stylized prose of a movie magazine or dime store romance; Sheen's Kit is said to resemble James Dean, and as such is constantly striking poses that look like the actor, including re-creating his iconic Christ-crucified image from Giant. The score -- mainly a piece from Carl Orff's Schulwerk -- is playful, like something you might hear at an amusement park. When the characters speak, they drip nonsequitors or sound like children trying to talk like adults.
Of course, all this is brilliant counterpoint to the story; the tale of wasted lives and senseless killing would be too disturbing to be entertaining if not wrapped in Malick's stylized package, where murder is a simple facet and whimsy is sinister.
Spacek and Sheen play off each other beautifully as the misfit lovers -- well, "lovers" being a term they would likely have embraced, though it's far more romanticized than romantic. As Holly's doomed father, Warren Oates (Two-Lane Blacktop) turns in a memorable, if brief, performance, as does Ramon Bieri (The Andromeda Strain) as an acquaintance of Kit's.
Badlands is such a beautifully off-kilter, uniquely visionary work, it almost defies description. As I mentioned above, it's been compared frequently to Bonnie and Clyde, but its quirkiness, its allowance for irony, and its sometimes genuinely funny roots in the absurd remind me of another "true crime" film of the era: Leonard Kastle's The Honeymoon Killers.
This is the kind of film that made the '70s such halcyon days for independents. Malick might not be remembered so much as a product of that time the way Coppola and Scorsese are associated with it, because Malick's output was so sparse, but certainly the sensibility of Badlands, the unmistakable voice, the courageousness of the filmmaking are all hallmarks of the era. Badlands is one of the finest films of the '70s, one that is absolutely not to be missed.
Criterion continues its impressive run of pre-Y2K Malick releases with this stunning Blu-ray.
Visually, I'd say the Criterion transfer is about as close to perfect as we're going to see. It's like watching a new print of a new film, with no marks, nicks, or imperfections, astonishing clarity, phenomenal, true colors, and an outstanding level of detail. Like all of Malick's work, Badlands is beautifully shot -- it is, to date, the only Malick film not to receive an Academy Award nomination for cinematography -- so the strong transfer really is imperative here. The PCM Mono audio track is near flawless, perfectly balanced with absolutely no distortion, hiss, or other unwanted sounds.
The solid supplemental package opens with a strong featurette, "Making Badlands," which includes new interviews with Spacek, Sheen, and Jack Fisk. Fisk, who met Spacek while working on this film and later married her, has worked as art director or production designer on all of Malick's films. Separate from this are interviews with producer Edward Pressman and associate editor Billy Weber. All these features were produced for this disc, and together they offer an intimate, in-depth look at the film and its creative force. Also included is an episode of the series American Justice about Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. Rounding out the set are the film's trailer plus an illustrated booklet with a critical essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda.
Badlands (Blu-ray) is another Criterion triumph. The disc is superlative, and the film is as fresh and relevant as it was 40 years ago. This one gets the highest recommendation; a "must own."
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13