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CINEMA – looking back at BADLANDS

Because Terrence Malick takes such long gaps in between projects, he might be the only director capable of generating a buzz years before he releases a film. Fans flocked to see THE THIN RED LINE even though it came out twenty years after DAYS OF HEAVEN and his last film, THE NEW WORLD, was released way back in 2005. Now, six years later, Malick is finally releasing the much talked-about TREE OF LIFE, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. It’s not due out for another four months, but that’s like a week in Malick-time.

In anticipation of the upcoming May release I thought I’d take a look back at Malick’s very first film, BADLANDS. Starring a young Martin Sheen as Kit and and even younger Sissy Spacek as Holly, Malick’s 1972 directorial debut follows a young couple (he’s 25, she’s 15) as they hide from the law in the Dakota badlands after murdering her father and burning down her house. Holly and Kit hole up in a variety of locations – a fort in the woods, a millionaire’s house in the city – but mostly they’re on the run, leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake.

If this description conjures up images of Arthur Penn’s 1967 BONNIE AND CLYDE you’re not entirely off base, but even though the central story line is similar, the two films have completely different tones. Where BONNIE AND CLYDE is raucous and boisterous, BADLANDS is quiet, meditative and often times eerie. Bonnie and Clyde shoot with smiles on their faces and whoop it up to a soundtrack of jumpy banjo music. In BADLANDS, Kit kills out of desperation, not bloodlust, and Holly, who doesn’t kill at all, traipses after him, never questioning his actions or motives.

Theirs is not a passionate love. Unlike Clyde, Holly doesn’t lose her virginity in a tender, precious moment in the grass. She discards it hastily, treating it with no more emotion than an item on a checklist. Their relationship is less of the sexual and more of the working variety. He depends on her for nothing more than companionship, so when Holly decides to stop running and turn herself in, Kit has nothing left to live for; He never cared about saving himself. In fact, he enjoys his newfound celebrity as a murderer, cracking jokes and laughing it up with the cops that catch him.

BADLANDS’ hypnotizing tour de force through the flat, barren Midwest has inspired countless actors and directors. Tony Scott’s 1993 TRUE ROMANCE borrows, copies or homages – whichever you prefer – the original music by Carl Orff and Spacek’s signature voiceover, as performed by Patricia Arquette. Still, if you’re going to steal from a film, you could do a lot worse. BADLANDS is one of those rare, perfect films. Dialogue, action and setting are minimal, creating a landscape the viewer can roam freely.