Now on UK Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion is one of the most significant American films of the early 1970s and perhaps, even, of all time. Terrence Malick’s impressionistic road movie Badlands from 1973, loosely inspired by the real-life story of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate who, in 1958, embarked on a cross-country murder spree, Malick launching not only his own but four other major Hollywood careers.
Both Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek were making their feature debuts in leading roles while cinematographer Tak Fujimoto would go on to photograph some of the most successful films of the 1980s and 1990s. Art director and production designer Jack Fisk also went on to collaborate regularly with Malick, David Lynch and Paul Thomas Anderson, while also finding time to marry Sissy Spacek.
Set in a small town in South Dakota in 1959, Spacek is fifteen-year-old, Holly Sargis who lives unhappily with her widowed father (Race With The Devil’s Warren Oates) and falls under the spell of a handsome young drifter in his mid-twenties called Kit Carruthers (Sheen). Kit working as a garbage collector, Holly’s father heartily disapproves of their liaison and to teach her a lesson he kills her pet dog.
This ignites Kit’s sociopathic streak and he kill’s Holly’s father, the pair then burning down her home and setting off on the run. After an idyllic period living in a tree house, they are threatened with discovery, Kit mercilessly shooting the men who stumbled upon them, prompting them to embark on an epic road trip to Canada as fugitives.
At the time of filming Martin Sheen was 32 and already had a long list of television credits from throughout the previous decades, but while he had played small parts in other features Badlands would be his first leading role. In the accompanying documentary Sheen tells how, after reading the script he knew this could be his big break but was worried he was too old because Kit was written as a nineteen-year-old. Malick assured him he only wanted Sheen and aged the character a little to accommodate him, and Sheen embodies the character to perfection mixing charm and danger in an attractive physical package.
Holly would be the first of Sissy Spacek’s lead roles as a naive sheltered teenager who would discover a life of danger. She had a certain otherworldliness that served her very well throughout the seventies such as the lead role in Carrie, and by 1980 she had moved into more mature leading roles with her Oscar-winning performance in the biopic Coalminer’s Daughter. In Badlands, her particular brand of wide-eyed naiveté mixed with a certain earthiness and pragmatism contrasts effectively with Sheen’s wild unpredictability.
Badlands was Malick’s feature debut and is possibly the greatest debut after Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Although of its time in look and style, Malick used an almost-documentary technique by shooting entirely on location, often with available light and also in the manner in which Holly serves as a narrator throughout the film.
Despite there being enormous attention to detail in the finer physical aspects of the film such as costume and props, Malick would often shoot on the fly depending on the weather conditions and the film’s most famous shot, of Kit staring at the sunset with a rifle draped across his shoulders, was completely improvised on the spot.
Malick masterfully weaves a tapestry of various seemingly incompatible genres such as road movie, horror thriller, gory action and suspense film into a satisfying complete whole. There is even a lengthy and superbly staged car chase. Watching the film now with 21st century eyes, it’s easy to see how hugely influential it has been in the decades since it was released even up to the present day; it is simply a masterpiece.
This new release from Criterion includes a recent making-of documentary featuring interviews with Sheen, Spacek and Jack Fisk amongst others who speak frankly about their experience of filming and its effect on launching their feature careers; regrettably, the director himself is notoriously publicity-shy and so does not contribute, allowing his work to speak for itself in this restored 4K digital transfer which Malick has approved.