I was in high school the first time I saw Badlands. I’d seen a lot of movies–I think by that time, I’d even made a top one hundred list. I know I’d seen True Romance, so I must have been at least fifteen. There’s nothing else like Badlands in cinema, which is a bit of an easy statement, a bit of a cop-out–it’s an attempt to describe something indescribable. I haven’t seen it in years–the last time would have been April or May of 1999, just after the DVD came out. I don’t think I know enough adjectives to write a more traditional response to the film–a person can only read (or type) stunning, amazing and singular so many times. Didn’t I already write singular once before that sentence?
Badlands is so difficult to describe because of Malick’s approach to the story. There’s no attempt to explain Martin Sheen’s personable, affable mass murderer. Malick never attempts to give him any humanity to make spending ninety minutes with him easier. Instead, Sheen charms the viewer too–he’s a likable guy and understanding why he starts killing people and doesn’t stop isn’t part of the viewer’s purview, or the film’s. Malick’s no more interested in explaining Sheen’s actions than he is explaining why he likes Eddie Fisher. Sheen does a lot of things–goes to see Warren Oates (a significant scene, not just for Sheen’s effort, but for Oates’s inexplicable, slow to anger response), fixes his hair before he gets caught, lets some couples live and others not–and Malick understands explaining them, or even drawing attention to them, would kill the film.
I’d forgotten three things about Badlands. First, its supreme quality. Second, the use of lighting (I won’t forget to discuss that aspect). Third, Malick’s dialogue. Sheen and Sissy Spacek rarely talk about the events in the film, something they both seem to recognize near the end. They have conversations about everything else, detached from their actions. Malick’s dialogue never seems evasive; it’s perfect.
Before the technical aspects–Spacek. Spacek narrates the film. What Badlands does, what very few other films have ever done (I’m at a loss for examples, the famous narrated films do not apply), is present a first person narrative in the finest sense. The details Malick includes aren’t necessarily filmic, they’re the details Spacek’s character would include. The short shot–and corresponding narration–of her putting on make-up while on the run… it’s one of the finest moments in film. There’s no other narration like Badlands. It puts Malick above as a screenwriter.
The lighting is wondrous. The way Malick uses shadows to establish scenes and to portray movement and action, that technique is special, but Badlands doesn’t have a single ordinary shot. The dance scene, the way the light hits the characters’ faces, the open plains. There’s nothing else like it. The shot of the mountains, where Malick pauses to give the viewer a chance to imagine it, then the shot surpasses. There’s nothing like it.
Malick’s montages are also breathtaking. Whether they’re set to Spacek’s narration or the perfect music.
It’s so hard to talk about Badlands, because it just begs to be watched over and over. I’d forgotten the last shot, for instance, where the film becomes something else entirely.
Or maybe it doesn’t become something else. Maybe in an effort to fill in the blanks, my bewilderment forces me to expect a deeper layer of meaning. It’s entirely possible Badlands is just Giotto’s circle.
Written, produced and directed by Terrence Malick; directors of photography, Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner and Brian Probyn; edited by Robert Estrin; music by George Aliceson Tipton; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Martin Sheen (Kit), Sissy Spacek (Holly), Warren Oates (Father), Ramon Bieri (Cato), Alan Vint (Deputy), Gary Littlejohn (Sheriff) and John Carter (Rich Man).