Why it’s the Perfect Time to Watch Terrence Malick’s Badlands


Many of those previously unfamiliar with director Terrence Malick were introduced to his work in 2011 with his magnificent and sprawling Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and then-newcomer Jessica Chastain. Now Criterion is taking audiences back to the beginning of his career with its 40th-anniversary release of Malick’s first feature, Badlands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, who were still baby-faced up-and-comers in 1973.

Why does a director who’s worked with some of Hollywood’s top leading men and women fly under the radar of more mainstream audiences? As an example, we’re willing to bet that even some of the more devout Colin Farrell fans didn’t catch him in one of his best roles, as Captain Smith (as in Mayflower-sailing, Pocahontas-loving Captain Smith) in Malick’s The New World (2005), alongside Christian Bale and Christopher Plummer. Seven years before that, Malick directed the WWII drama The Thin Red Line, with an ensemble cast that reads like the guest list for the Vanity Fair Oscars party, including Sean Penn, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, and George Clooney, but when was the last time someone referenced The Thin Red Line as a Clooney flick? Before that, Malick took a 20-year break from directing (Days of Heaven was released in 1978); with gaps that wide he faces a different generation every time around, one that might not be aware of his critical (if not always commercial) success or his Kubrickian mystique.


But now Malick seems to be shaking up his routine. In an unprecedented spurt of cinematic activity, he’s set to finish four new films in the next year or so (the release dates aren’t firm) with a household name or two in the mix (Ben Affleck, Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, and Natalie Portman, for starters). With that in mind, there’s never been a better time than now for younger audiences to get acquainted with Malick’s work, and we can’t think of a more accessible point of entry than Badlands.

Inspired by the real-life killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Frygate in 1958, Badlands is narrated by teenaged Holly (Spacek), who falls for Kit (Sheen), a small-town misfit “handsomer than anybody [she’d] ever met.” Holly remains cool and dispassionate even after Kit murders her father and sets her house on fire. The two take off across the country on a road trip set to a soundtrack dominated by Carl Orff’s buoyant “Gassenhauer.”

Kit, a boyishly charming James Dean wannabe, is “the prototypical affable serial killer/philosopher,” says director Michael Almereyda in his essay on the film. Even as he kills nearly a dozen victims, seemingly at random, we follow the camera’s close, tender gaze of two lost children at large in a moral vacuum, who Malick grants “an impenetrable purity, a supple, sweet, murder-resistant air of lostness—which sets the story apart from the Starkweather case and just about every previous lovers-on-the-run movie, including the conspicuous 1967 hit Bonnie and Clyde.

The Criterion DVD and Blu-ray are packed with all the bells and whistles you’ve come to expect from its collections (such as a director-approved new 4k digital transfer, cast and crew interviews, and featuretts), but as Badlands was one of the most requested titles to get the Criterion treatment, the release is kind of a big deal—there’s even a brand-new making-of documentary with Sheen and Spacek.


This article was originally published on Details.