Terrence Malick’s auspicious debut feature, Badlands, is filled with indelible imagery — so much so that it’s almost a little too easy to become inured to the astonishing visual genius on display. As I rewatched the film for the first time in five years or so, almost every shot was like a rediscovered revelation — the candy-colored billboard framed against an impossibly blue sky, licks of flame consuming a dollhouse, Martin Sheen with a rifle on his shoulders as the moon rises behind him.
Badlands features a more straightforward narrative and less elliptical editing than all of Malick’s subsequent features (pointed out as both a positive and a negative by different camps), but that outlier status can obscure what seems obvious when the film is right in front of you — Badlands is a supremely gorgeous film, and though its less formally experimental, it’s hardly less beguiling and bewitching.
The film also makes it clear that though he’s tended to obfuscate actors’ performances in his subsequent films, Malick was a gifted director of actors from the get-go. Still somewhat unproven at the time, both Sheen and Sissy Spacek are utterly perfect as Kit and Holly, a pair of unlikely lovers on the run from the law in the 1950s after Kit kills her father (Warren Oates) and embarks on a casually murderous rampage. He’s a 25-year-old garbage collector whose charm is his chief skill and she’s a 15-year-old baton-twirler with a lazily dreamy outlook. Sheen’s wry, disarming demeanor and Spacek’s deceptively innocent exterior endear them to us even as their characters’ onscreen actions are undeniably repellent and/or frustrating.
Ultimately, this is not as much of an outlier among Malick’s work as conventional wisdom says. It’s still deeply philosophical about man’s place in the universe, the coexistence of primal beauty and ugliness and our inextricable link to nature. Spacek’s non-intuitive narration both amplifies and undercuts the events taking place onscreen. The photography is sublime, naturally. And with a narrative that refuses to moralize and frequently unmoors its events from real-world consequences, it’s not as structurally conventional as proclaimed, either. We’ll probably never see this Malick again, but we’ll always have Badlands.
The Blu-ray Disc
Finally, Badlands gets its due on home video, as Criterion’s near-perfect Blu-ray edition easily bests the lackluster Warner DVD from more than a decade ago. (Fans should also note this marks the first time Warner has licensed a title to Criterion; a major development that once seemed impossible.) The 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is just lovely, sourced from a 4K transfer of the original 35mm negative. Image clarity is stunning from the get-go and never falters, delivering a very film-like image with abundant fine detail. Both earthy colors and bright tones are rendered with striking vibrancy and depth, and only a stray mark here or there can be found. Seeing the film in this state will be like seeing it for the very first time for most viewers, I have a feeling.
The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is also excellent, delivering crystal clear dialogue and crisp cuts of the film’s memorable music selections, which range from Nat King Cole to Erik Satie.
The extras consist of mostly interviews, but they’re all worth watching. A making-of segment features interviews with Sheen, Spacek, and art director Jack Fisk , each of whom remember the film fondly. A number of anecdotes are shared, and one gets a strong sense of what working with Malick is like — quirks attributed to his inexperience at the time have since been recognized as the director’s method. Shorter interviews with producer Edward Pressman and editor Billy Weber are also included. Pressman’s business-oriented perspective is a nice addition and Weber offers some fascinating insight into Malick’s stylistic choices. A 1993 episode of American Justice tells the story of the Charles Starkweather killings, which inspired the film’s plotline. The disc also includes the theatrical trailer. The included booklet features an essay by Michael Almereyda.
The Bottom Line
It’s been worth the wait for a Badlands Blu-ray, as Criterion offers a fantastic edition.