Thirty years ago, Terrence Malick's magnificent debut film Badlands proved that with every bit of genius comes a bit of madness as well.
Reviewed by Eli Kooris, Fri., April 4, 2003
D: Terrence Malick; with Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Ramon Bieri, Alan Vint.
The life of 15-year-old Holly Sargis (Spacek) in the Fort Dupree, S.D., of 1959 is as bland as the sound of her voice-over narration. Her father (Oates) paints billboard advertisements and disapproves of Holly seeing boys, especially the young, handsome garbage collector named Kit Carruthers (Sheen), who has the look and swagger of the recently deceased James Dean. Yet, as most teenage girls tend to do, Holly goes against her father's wishes, and the young lovers' ardor swells to intense proportions. When Holly's father stands between her and her new flame, Kit promptly murders him -- just as coolly as he lights his unfiltered cigarettes. This ignites a brutal crime spree as the detached couple roams from the wastelands of South Dakota on into eastern Montana on a rampage that writer/director Terrence Malick based on the real life "Mad Dog Killings" of 1958, during which lovers Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate indiscriminately killed 11 people. On the surface, the violence Kit enacts and Holly quietly observes seems just as aimless. Yet this is where Malick shows his true mastery of visual mood, in which the depiction of setting tends to dictate the actions of the characters (something even more apparent in his acclaimed latter films, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line). Every seemingly banal word spoken by Kit and Holly effects a certain philosophical resonance about the lost youth culture, an appropriate American topic 30 years ago, as the tides of the Sixties seemed to be receding. There have been a whole host of unspecified remakes of this film over the past three decades -- most notably the Quentin Tarantino-scribed True Romance, which takes a hipper, bloodier approach to the modern-day forms of Kit and Holly and their quest for the American Dream (even Erik Satie's delicate opening xylophone score is reworked by Hans Zimmer). Oddly, such a remake reflects the very haunting world Malick's Badlands seemed to predict, one buried in gloss, where art is only meant to help sell, where youth is desperate to be loved and turns violent toward anything that stands in its way.