Review by Gordon Justesen
Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Ramon Bieri, Warren Oates
Director: Terrence Malick
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 93 Minutes
Release Date: March 19, 2013
“You’re quite an individual, Kit.”
“Think they’d take that into consideration?”
It wasn’t until after seeing Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven that I first saw the visionary filmmaker’s 1973 debut feature, Badlands. To this day, it definitely stands out the most amongst Malick’s work simply because it follows a more conventional storytelling structure when compared to his later work. It’s clear that Malick was wanting to establish himself with his first directorial outing, even if that meant pleasing whatever studio would give him the big break he wanted…from that point on, everything was done his way.
That’s not to say that the film is without any sense of visual beauty whatsoever. Although the amount of scenic photography pales in comparison to the amount that was displayed in his subsequent films, Malick took full advantage of his 2nd unit crew to get just the right amount in order to make both the nature and the landscapes of South Dakota a character of the film.
Set in the 1950s, the film is basically a fugitive lovers on the run story, though it doesn’t seem so at first. It starts out innocently enough, as we are introduced to Kit (Martin Sheen), a garbage man with an eccentric but harmless demeanor about him. One day after work, he comes across Holly (Sissy Spacek) in the front yard of her house. He immediately takes a liking to her, and she the same to him.
But we soon see that Kit has something of a mean streak in him, as well as a revolver which he isn’t afraid to use on those who he sees as a threat to him and his newfound love. One such person is Holly’s father (Warren Oates), who finds Kit to be a turn off right from the very start. So Kit doesn’t hesitate in killing him and taking Holly with him on the run.
The events of the story are taken from real life. Kit is loose representation of Charles Starkweather, whose romance with Carill Ann Fugate resulted in a murder spree that claimed eleven lives. Starkweather modeled himself after James Dean, who Kit also mirrors in appearance. Strangely enough, my only knowledge of the real life story was from its inclusion in Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners.
The film is told from Holly’s perspective, and done so through use of voice over narration. That, too, would become a trademark of Malick’s and used to bold, unconventional effect in the films that followed this. But it is also used most effectively here, as she details various moments in her and Kit’s eccentric road trip.
This was without question Martin Sheen’s breakout role, and it’s easy to see why he became the renowned actor he is today. His portrayal of Kit is a flawless mix of charm and fright, balanced so perfectly that you simply don’t know what to expect from him, especially in the film’s final moments where his demeanor always capture me by surprise. And Sissy Spacek (also in her breakout role) captures the confused and innocent teenage girl beautifully.
When I say that Badlands ranks as the least of Terrence Malick’s work, it’s not a slam against it in any way. It just so happened that Malick went on to make four films that were much more potently powerful by comparison. If anything, Badlands ranks as one of the greatest debut features ever for a director, and the kind that rarely happens for any first timer.
A Criterion Blu-ray release is exciting enough, but a Criterion Blu-ray release of a Terrence Malick film is nothing short of monumental. Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line are two of the best high def releases on record, especially in the video department…and Criterion’s release of Badlands is right up there with them. Watching a film like this through the 1080p is pretty much the epitome of being immersed in the actual scenery, and the mastering of this 1973 piece results in most extraordinary presentation. As far as films that capture the landscapes of rural America, this might be the most beautiful looking I’ve seen on Blu-ray. The colors in the fields alone are magnificent to gaze upon, as are the blue skylines and the close up shots of nature. And as for image detail, this release is one for the history books. Awe-inspiring, to say the least!
I can’t recall the last time I gave such a high rating to a basic PCM mono mix…but then again, Criterion is known to work wonders. The sweeping music on the soundtrack is even more beautiful to the ears on this release, as are various ambient sounds associated with the setting. The violence in the film also packs more of a punch than ever before (I’m always surprised when I’m reminded this was actually rated PG), as Kit’s gunshots are captured most intensely.
A most terrific line up of supplements grace this Criterion Blu-ray release! There’s “Making Badlands”, a new documentary that features interviews with Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek and art director Jack Fisk (who as it turns out, has long been married to Ms. Spacek). We also get brand new interviews with associate editor Billy Weber and executive producer Edward Pressman. But perhaps the most intriguing of the extras is a 1993 Episode of the TV show “American Justice” that focuses on Charles Starkweather, the inspiration for the film’s lead character. You simply can’t beat that Bill Kurtis narration, for one thing! Rounding out the extras is the film’s Trailer and, in trademark Criterion fashion, an insert booklet featuring an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda.
Badlands marks as a terrific first showcase for a man who would go on to become filmmaking visionary unlike any other. And the film was very much ahead of its time when first released. Film lovers owe it to themselves to seek this one out now that it’s made it onto the proper format for such a title. One of the must have Blu-rays of the year!