Terrence Malick’s debut feature, Badlands, is one of those films that I feel I should like more than I do. I stress the should, with its sense of obligation to a purpose beyond personal gratification. While Malick was already an established screenwriter when he directed the film, it nonetheless heralds the arrival of a gifted, distinctive, serious filmmaker. Malick’s mixture of deadpan affect and rapturous visuals is close to my own sensibility, and when working in top form, as, for example, in The Thin Red Line he deserves his reputation as one of the major American filmmakers of his generation.
But I have never cared much for Badlands. I don’t even feel obligated to save face by pointing out what’s good. I don’t actively dislike it; I don’t have any strong reaction to it unless you can be strongly indifferent. I can understand why contemporary critics praised it. There is no difficulty in discerning the Malick-to-be. Few filmmakers start out so clearly of a piece. To borrow a famous comment made by Sergei Eisenstein about All Quiet on the Western Front, however, it feels like “a good PhD thesis.”
Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) are two wild ones on the run after Kit murders Holly’s father, but they are far from the romantic outlaws of a Bonnie and Clyde. Kit is meant to be unpredictably violent, dangerously lacking control. Holly is an amorphous lump, willing to do what anyone (her father, Kit and presumably the husband to whom she refers late in the narration) tells her she should. She is not so much passive as numb. Neither is likable or unlikable. Holly’s monotonous narration and Kit’s killing spree are as flat as the landscape, a no doubt deliberate effect that is not terribly engaging.
As usual with a Malick film, Badlands is beautifully shot, and also as usual, he cuts to images of nature frequently and ambiguously. The method is so familiar from his other films that you are left without any feeling beyond recognition. Yes, the imagery is often striking, but it’s unclear what it has to do with the central action, aside from a facile contrast between the ugliness of Kit’s actions and the wonders of nature.
As for whatever suspense the pursuit of Kit and Holly across the landscape is supposed to generate, it too is largely muted and remote. With the exception of the final chase when Kit is caught by state troopers, the reaction of the locals is almost abstract, more like a ritual leading up to a final sacrifice than any real effort to trail and subdue. Even the cops are more than a little smitten by Kit’s sociopathy. They don’t seem to care that the man they’ve captured has killed several innocent people.
Neither do we. Caring about little in Badlands was probably Malick’s intention; it’s certainly a unique approach. But the results are cheerlessly brilliant and desiccated.