So you know that feeling when you see The Tree of Life and you don’t really like it, and then you think to yourself “hey if I didn’t like that one I may not feel too hot about Terrence Malick’s other films,” but then you see Badlands and you really enjoy it and then you go on your blog and write a hopelessly long run-on sentence to start off your review of Badlands?
I’m feeling that so much right now. You wouldn’t even believe it.
So The Tree of Life had plenty of things that I didn’t enjoy or agree with, like its odd, meandering pacing or the fact that it felt more like a series of broad vignettes about human development and life itself rather than a cohesive story, but that’s a different topic for a different review.
That different review, of course, is Eat, Sleep, Television’s Official Review of The Tree of Life! Which you can read by simply by clicking the link below!
And now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s on to Badlands.
Badlands, Terrence Malick’s 1973 feature film debut, is the story of Holly (Sissy Spacek), a naive young girl who falls for a rebellious, James Dean-ish garbageman, Kit (Martin Sheen). Their love starts out like anyone else’s- tender moments in secret hiding places, late-night rendezvous and all that other fun stuff. Kit’s much older than Holly and her dad doesn’t approve, but they sneak around anyway and Spacek and Sheen work fantastically as an on-screen couple, both of them gentle and charming and slightly stupid in equal measures.
But, because this is a movie and ninety minutes’ worth of generic (if well-acted) romance isn’t interesting in the slightest, Holly and Kit’s relationship takes a turn for the weird when Kit starts killing people.
It’s not really as black-and-white as it seems, though. First, Kit kills because he’s hot-headed and freaking out and also a bit dumb. And then he kills to cover up that first killing and to protect himself and Holly. But the justifications for each murder grow weaker and weaker as the bodies start to pile up, and soon it’s evident that Kit’s a bona-fide crazy person and that Holly’s become his unwitting accomplice.
Holly never really rebels against Kit, or takes a stand against his killings, and (at least in the beginning of the film) that gets to be a little jarring. There were plenty of times when I wanted to leap up and scream at Holly for the lack of reaction she shows to her boyfriend’s horrible deeds. My rage passed, though, with time, and in looking back at the film her actions (or lack thereof) seem appropriate in a big-picture sense.
For one thing, Holly’s only fifteen and clearly she’s not the most mature person on the planet. She grasps that what Kit’s doing is wrong, and by the end of the film the tone of her narration changes from a dreamy storybook marriage to something a little more grim and down-to-earth, but her character has this sweet, good-natured slowness that seems to affect the characters, the story and even some of violence at times.
If you’ve seen the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona then you know exactly what I’m talking about. That mix of calm and easy-going and dumb that inhabits the blank look Nicolas Cage carries throughout the whole film. Cage’s childlike sweetness lingers in every moment of Raising Arizona in the same way that Sissy Spacek’s does for Badlands. Malick even explicitly said he was trying to make the film feel like a fairy tale.
And, of course, Badlands clearly bears the mark of Terrence Malick. The soundtrack is full of soaring orchestral pieces and rhythmic chants and operatic swells, and the camera frequently lingers on the landscape for extended periods of time. However, there are two big differences between the clusters of nature photography here and in The Tree of Life:
A. In Badlands, the long shots of landscapes or desert plants or whatever else always explicitly serve the story. Are our characters in a plane? Fly the camera up into the sky and watch clouds drift past the lens. Is someone in the desert? Jam the camera low to the ground and let’s see some dust and sand.
B. These sequences are like, twenty or thirty seconds. Tops. At no point during these little sojourns did I ever wonder when the movie’s going to start up again. The images are here to serve the story, and not the other way around.
And all The Tree of Life references aside (I really can’t let go of that one, can I?), Badlands succeeds on both a narrative and a technical level and really, truly feels unique, which is a huge deciding factor when it comes to me liking a movie.
You can check out that uniqueness for yourself. And you don’t even have to see the movie to do so. Just click this link and look at the poster for Badlands.
Beautiful imagery. Abrupt, matter-of-fact writing. A little splash of dark humor.
That’s Badlands for you.