Monday 29 July 2019

Movie Review: Badlands (1973)

A crime spree drama and romance, Badlands captures the embellished absurdity of arbitrary murder in service of notoriety.

The setting is rural South Dakota in 1959. In the small and quiet town of Fort Dupree, Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) is a laid-back but also restless 25 year old James Dean look-alike working as a garbage collector. He romantically pursues 15 year old Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) over the objections of her father (Warren Oates), a painter. Kit changes jobs and becomes a cow farm worker, and as the romance with Holly deepens, he decides that they should take off together on an undefined adventure and nonchalantly kills her father when he tries to intervene.

The two young lovers burn down Holly's house in an attempt to cover their tracks, then escape to the wilderness where they live idyllically for a while in a tree house. But lawmen are on their tracks, and soon a trio of bounty hunters arrive. Kit is ready for them with a shotgun and elaborate traps. The body count rises and Kit and Holly are on the run again, driving across the open landscape towards Montana and Saskatchewan.

A remarkable debut effort from writer, producer and director Terrence Malick, Badlands is loosely based on the real 1958 crime spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. Malick independently raised the money for his vision, and crafts a disconcerting and lyrical drama narrated with haunting cluelessness by Holly. The film has an almost accidental beauty to it, a love story on the run in stark and deceptively open terrain, except that as much as Kit loves Holly he also does not hesitate to murder people while she stands by and weaves justifications in her young and infatuated mind.

The film's delicate touch appears to gloss over Kit's twisted mind and evil motives but in reality captures all there is to be said about the brash killer. With Martin Sheen radiating cockiness, Kit is bored, underemployed, uneducated, good looking and seeking a thrill. And maybe the world owes him more than a job as a garbage collector or cow wrangler. And that's enough. Kit decides that shooting Holly's father is faster than arguing with him, and every subsequent murder gets easier and constructs a legend which soon becomes a purpose.

In the intervals between episodes of bloodshed a romance blossoms as Kit and Holly settle into the routine of couples, including sharing (for the most part) domestic duties and slow dancing in the middle of nowhere to music from the car radio. The juxtaposition of an almost innocent love with cold hearted violence ought not to work, but the Badlands are a place where both life and death are easy.

The astounding Spacek was 24 years old at the time of filming but easily passes for 15, and the story is seen through her naive but expressive eyes. Holly is swept up by the attention of an older man, and her life is subsequently simplified into standing by her new found lover and trusting his every action.

Cinematography duties were shared by Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner and Brian Probyn, and Badlands often looks stunning. Malick places his protagonists against vast fields, skyscapes and distant mountains, the rich colours of uncontaminated nature exuding an illusory sense of calm.

A road movie punctuated by surreal bursts of terminal violence, Badlands finds the allure of a landscape where all things are possible, including killing as a pathway to infamy for its own sake.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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