One what must have been a pivotal day in 1970s American cinema, Warner Bros bought the rights to breakthrough films by two of the decades most important talents. One was Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, the other was Badlands, the debut of Terrence Malick. Although Malick hasn’t made anything like the impact on the public’s conciousness that Scorsese has (largely because he’s only made two films since; the others being Days of Heaven,1978 & The Thin Red Line, 1999), every film he’s made is pure gold, a bona fide classic. For many however, his finest hour remains his first.
Inspired by the real-life killing spree of Charles Starkweather in Nebraska 1958, Badlands tells the story of the relationship between garbage-man Kit (Martin Sheen), & his teenage girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek) as they break free from her father & go on the run across South Dakota towards the Badlands of Montana, coolly killing anyone who gets in their way.
One of the most astonishing things about this most beautiful of films is it’s brilliantly observed focus on subtle & minute moments, often of things tangential to the main narrative. It’s a remarkably relaxed & naturalistic film, boasting a pair of wonderfully unforced performances from the leads, who often seem to be entirely unaware that they’re being filmed. And even around the often savagely brutal central narrative, life & nature carries on regardless. It’s a film of moments snatched, as it’s better to spend a week with someone who loves you for what you are, than to endure years of loneliness.
The portrayal of the violence in Badlands is one of the things that, to me at least, makes it stand out. Death is a part of nature, an object of curiosity, & Kit’s crimes are almost an escalation of the death seen early in the film – the cows killed for meat, the fish that gets thrown away when it gets sick, or the dog killed as a punishment. The violence is just a means to an end, all it is it the “pop” of a gun, & the obstacle is gone. They are off on an adventure, living an almost childlike fantasy, utterly dissociated from the reality of their crimes, somehow using the violence as a connection to the real world. And not only that, but watching the film we are put into that same frame of mind, & as we are there with them they somehow maintain out sympathies even as they start to grow apart. For all it’s off-hand violence, Badlands is a surprisingly warm, funny & poignant film, which is a quite remarkable achievement.
The other thing that I truly adore about Badlands is in it’s breathtaking marriage of film & music. The cinematography (with no less than three photographers credited) is absolutely goregous, but Malick demonstates an amazing ear for the placing of music, including a couple of popular classics. Most notable are the montages, often devoid of natural sound, brilliantly edited by Robert Estrin & with just the Spacek’s narration. It’s thrilling, hypnotic cinematic poetry at its very finest. Of course, this narration style was famously borrowed by Tarantino for True Romance, which also uses (albeit uncredited by composer Hans Zimmer) this films most famous piece of music, Carl Orff’s Musica Poetica. But for all his fancy dialogue, neither Tarantino nor Tony Scott can hope to make the sheer magic of Badlands. Not nearly as widely known & seen as it desrves to be, Badlands is one of the very finest films of the 70’s, a true classic of American cinema, & genuinely essential viewing.
The new DVD from Warner Home Video UK comes in R2/PAL format, & boasts a rather impressive 16x9 enhanced 1.85:1 widescreen picture. A couple of times it looks perhaps slightly soft & a little grainy in the twilight scenes, but it’s nothing to really complain about. The audio is a beautifully clear Dolby 5.1 track which makes little use of the surrounds. There is also French & Italian mono dubs, plus subtitles in English, French, Italian, Dutch, Arabic, Spanish, Portugese, German, Romanian, & Bulgarian.
For extras, there is the theatrical trailer, plus – in a welcome case of being better than the R1 version – an all-new 21-minute featurette “Absence of Malick”, featuring a host of new interviews. This piece is actually produced by Blue Underground, & is a cut above the usual shorts of this type, largely because everyone is so genuinely proud of the film & their association with it. It does suffer from the inevitable absence of Malick himself, but there’s not much you can do about that. It’s not a huge host of extras, but then this title is (unfortunately) not likely to be challenging for the top 10 best-sellers of the year list so, save perhaps for a Sheen/Spacek commentary, I don’t see how much more they could reasonably have included. Even so, it does now stand as currently the best Malick disc on the market.