As is the case with Orson Welles, Terrence Malick’s first film is also his best. Indeed, the reclusive director’s 1973 masterpiece can justifiably make a claim to be one of the greatest debuts ever made: by turns frightening, funny and deeply beautiful, there’s very little else like it, as this new print from the BFI proves.
Badlands is a fictionalised account of the 1959 Charlie Starkweather/Caril-Ann Fugate murder spree, and when Malick came to write his script Fugate was still in prison and up for parole, meaning that the 29-year-old director was forced to change their names for his version. Badlands instead presents the story of young rubbish collector Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) and his teenage sweetheart Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek), who murder Sargis’s father before faking their suicides and lighting out for the badlands of Montana.
Made at the height of summer for little money ($300,000) with a non-union crew, Malick’s script was inspired by great American myths from Tom Sawyer to James Dean. But Malick was also influenced by Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou and its reworking of the classic tropes of film noir – the first-person voice-over, the doomed couple on the run (the film is dedicated to Bonnie And Clyde director Arthur Penn). Like Godard, though, Malick sidesteps any of the kind of moral judgements associated with the great films noirs. Unlike its many lesser imitations, this is a movie which is almost startlingly lacking in comment on the violence we are presented with. The strapline on the original movie poster proclaimed ‘in 1959, she watched while he killed a lot of people’. We’re forced to do the same, neither identifying with nor being forced to condemn the actions of the lead characters, instead being shown Kit and Holly alongside images from nature, perhaps suggesting that the world is a cruel place and that their crimes are just another product of that cruelty. Certainly that was the conclusion of Bruce Springsteen, the title track of whose 1982 album ‘Nebraska’ was inspired by the film and contained the lyrics ‘they wanted to know why I did what I did/well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world’.
A photo exists of the real Starkweather and Fugate – who killed eleven people over the space of six months across Nebraska and Wyoming – immediately after their capture. They’re both handcuffed, but are grinning into the camera. Badlands presents Sheen and Spacek’s characters as equally remorseless but far more solemn and self-obsessed. Spacek’s character is fixated with the fantasy world of celebrity magazines and there is a sense in which she has been bred to be a passive consumer of images, no matter how disquieting: at one point Carruthers shoots an acquaintance from his garbage truck route in the stomach (Holly: ‘Kit never let on why he shot Cato’) and the couple follow this futile and meaningless act of violence by watching him slowly bleeding to death.
It’s not exactly their fault: this is a world where moral authority is entirely absent from the moment that Holly’s father (Warren Oates) shoots her dog, where the bounty hunters and police who hunt Carruthers and Sirgis do so only for money or personal fame. Living out in the woods in a tree-house before their capture, we see Kit and Holly achieve a kind of innocence, before nature’s savagery forces them to set out again on their journey to the very end of the world.