Badlands (1973)

A brilliantly full-formed first-time effort from Terrence Malick, with so much that would come to characterise his career (fascination with the natural world and humanity’s relationship with it, stunning visuals that seem to be seeing that natural world with godly perspective, much use of the magic hour of lighting, voiceover mapped across a sparse impressionistic story, philosophy baked holistically into a film instead of presented directly through narrative), but presented in a more traditionally narratively structured and coherent way.

That narrative follows two lonely young people fall in and out of love in a relationship covered with surprising scale and length, starting out played more infatuated Romeo and Juliet style, but ending in the logical nondramatic conclusion to such a relationship, gradual recognition of themselves and each other and subsequent falling out of love (Sissy Spacek manages this all with great humanity).

Martin Sheen excels as the James Deen type sociopath driving the film, his charisma working on the audience and eventually the society around him to convey a sort of idolatry figure of the rule of cool, independence, free will, the American spirit, despite the punctuations of violence and sociopathy making clear how little that conception is rooted in sense or reality. The film maps this out as there’s never really one point it becomes clear this is more serial killer film than love or rebel story.


As out of place as the principal characters were, Sheen’s character, through his charisma, embodiment of idolised attributes and frankly his mantling of violence in a society obsessed with it, comes to bring about some form of transformation in a society he couldn’t find place in, resonating with it in a chilling way. It’s notable the sort of serial killer worship this film, and the period its set in, precedes.

The society’s obsession over violence and those that perpetrate it plays as interesting contrast to the fascination with nature and the loving way its peace is captured here (Malick would investigate that contrast with great depth in “The Thin Red Line”, here it’s more an interesting suggestion in the margins).

A brilliant first effort. Four shootings, and a booby trap.


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