Malick is something of a Hollywood legend. He made his screen debut with this unsettling film, followed it in 1978 with the Oscar-winning "Days of Heaven", then disappeared for twenty years before returning with the disappointing "Thin Red Line". Anyway.
Sissy Spacek plays Holly, a fifteen-year-old resident of South Dakota, socially awkward and introverted. Martin Sheen plays Kit, a Korean War vet who takes a liking to her and decides that she's worth throwing away what little hold he has on normal life. Her father doesn't want him around, so Kit shoots him and burns the house down. Kit knows he will become a folk hero, and every step he takes is calculated with that in mind. He leaves a recording explaining why he did it, and the two of them run off together, Holly eerily not minding that her father is dead at the hands of her lover. Thus begins a weeks-long cross country crime spree, as the paranoia and excitement of the possible arrival of the outlaw Kit Carruthers spreads through the Great Plains. Kit leads the way, killing when the whim hits him but equally generous with life as he is with death. Holly slowly tires of the adventure, longing for stability which Kit can never provide. When Kit comes to realize this, he sets the stage for a dramatic capture that will cement his place in history. Meanwhile, Malick is sneakily building a biting commentary on the American infatuation with violent crimes and criminals that has to rank among the best ever made.
"Badlands" is nearly perfect in every way. The performances by Sheen and Spacek are both faultless. Sheen is by turns terrifying and infectiously likeable, giving the second best performance of his career (the first being "Apocalypse Now"). Spacek's creepily blasť innocence in the face of Sheen's violence is scary in itself. The picture was beautifully shot, Malick using the empty expanses of the Badlands to accentuate the moral emptiness of his characters and the society they weren't as different from as we would like to think. Finally, this is among the best examples I have ever seen of the perfect use of music. Not a single song or melody sounded out of place, and I couldn't imagine the scenes without their musical accompaniment.
I could crow about this movie all day. It is funny, because for the first half-hour, I was somewhat impressed but not especially excited about it. I can't pin down the exact moment I realized that I was watching something special, but I will definitely watch the film again to find out. The movie just creeps up on you, and suddenly you find yourself in the car with Kit and Holly, secretly hoping that they make it, and hating that you feel that way.
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