rev: Terrence Malick’s Badlands [1973]


Really, if you want a mid-1970s artistic masterpiece with voice-over narration just re-watch Barry Lyndon.

While I’m sure the film was refreshing to contemporary audiences for its ethos of “a little less conversation, a little more action,” cold-blooded murder along the romantic sundown horizons of the Dakotas, and some critics even called it one of the best film portrayals of the unhindered American spirit, Badlands is a snooze.

Regardless of the impressionistic imagery and unexplained, wanton violence, the film is essentially about a teenage girl with a intellectual disability who aimlessly followed a psychopath named Kit Carruthers, who within an hour on film transformed into a paranoid sociopath. At first we do not care for Kit in as much as we are puzzled and terrified by him. KIt started out as a young garbage man with a gun who drove around killing pretty much everybody he met, and especially those who asked questions or who were doing their errands, as if life were a toddler’s game. But by the end, as we see him preening and ingratiating himself with the cops, we realize who and what he is: a violent egotist. And there is nothing particularly interesting or novel about a violent egotist.

Neither Martin Sheen or SIssy Spacek seemed that enthused with the film, given the lack of chemistry between the two. In fact, it seemed like they acted as if they lived in separate universes or at least worked in separate films. And while Sheen may have changed his opinion of the film since 1973, the film cannot explain Kit the cold-blooded killer and Kit the wannabe superstar serial killer. Obviously, Malick had issues with integrating his source material—the killing spree of Charles Starkweather that Malick denied as an inspiration—with his own philosophies and theories of the bankruptcy and even psychosis of American culture. This is an undoing incongruity that not even the acting of Sheen and Spacek or the cinematography of Tak Fujimoto could hide.