Badlands (1973)


Badlands – 1973

Director – Terence Malick

Starring – Martin Sheen, and Sissy Spacek

I first had heard about the film Badlands through my regular subscription to the film review podcast Filmspotting. The two hosts periodically have marathons on a certain theme. This theme just happened to be “The New Hollywood”, films during the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s. Badlands, along with others such as Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, Mean Streets, In the Heat of the Night as well as a few others filled out the bill. The Filmspotting hosts spoke so highly of Badlands, and Terrence Malick, that I was instantly compelled to move this film up on my Netflix queue, and see what all the hullabaloo was about.

As far as directorial debuts go, Terence Malick’s Badlands is right up there with François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, American Beauty, by Sam Mendes, and Rian Johnson’s Brick. Badlands, like each of those other first films, is a breath of fresh air. Despite the fact that it was released in 1973, it’s age doesn’t show in the least. The young stars, Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek look younger than I’ve ever seen them, so much so, that it is almost hard to recognize them. This works to their advantage, making each pitch perfect in their roles of the rebellious, angsty young man, and the doting admirer who at the same time grounds him and is his inspiration for acting out. Everything they do, up until the end of the film, is done for the benefit of each other (this doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the just thing, or the lawful thing, but it is done entirely for the other person.)

There are times in this relationship where the love between the two main characters is at times stretched thin (especially when he kills), and at times exceedingly tender, but ultimately the two are on completely different paths, and eventually have to part ways.


One plot point that doesn’t really work is the reaction of Sissy Spacek’s character when Sheen kills her father. It is established early on that the father and daughter are not particularly close, but her reaction, or rather her lack of a reaction, doesn’t seem fitting. It holds with his characterization that he would be rather dismissive, and aloof about what he’d done, but just by virtue of the fact that the closest member of her family was murdered, by her boyfriend, seems like it deserves at least some outrage or anger.   Spacek’s character treats the killing the same way she might a burned dinner, or a ruined dress, bummed but not distressed.  Even though she is ultimately trading father figures, her real father for Kit (Sheen), I would imagine some sort of emotional blow up there, even if it’s anger directed towards the dying man.

I guess Spacek’s character is at least consistant throughout the film.  She continues to be the impartial observer throughout the entire sequence of events, from the murder, and robbery of each of their victims, down to the eventual fate of her doomed beau.

*** End Spoilers ***

Another thing that struck me about this film, is the fact that I’d seen a lot of it borrowed and co-opted by other films. Films such as Natural Born Killers borrow heavily from the plot of the film, while True Romance borrows heavily from the narration and musical elements ( I suppose this makes sense, as Quentin Tarantino, the writer of both Natural Born Killers and True Romance, is a master of borrowing good bits from other films, revitalizing them, and making them his own.)

While it was certainly worthy of mention as an important landmark film, I can’t say that Badlands affected me quite as much as other films in the Filmspotting new Hollywood marathon did when I first saw them. While I’d like to watch Badlands again to get more from it, I’ll take Bonnie and Clyde, or Midnight Cowboy any day of the week!

6 thoughts on “Badlands (1973)

  1. Pingback: 1001 Movies – The Complete List « 1001 Movies I Must Comment On Before I Die!

  2. Interesting to hear what someone thinks about this film seeing it for the first time. I first saw it when I was 13 or 14 and have seen it many times since. I love the dreamy poetic quality the film has.

    I agree about the similarity with the voiceover in true romance I thought the same thing when I first saw true romance. As you say Tarantino is a master of borrowing from other films.

    As a matter of interest on that subject Natural Born Killers actually started life out as a film within a film. In the first draft of True Romance Clarence (Christian Slater) was writing a screenplay about a pair of serial killers. Tarantino claimed that Natural Born Killers deserved its own film but I suspect he realised he could sell them as two scripts and make more money to help fund his projects.

    As far as Natural Born Killers borrowing from the plot. The plot is based on a true story that has been used a few times. As well as other films if you don’t know it have a listen to the Bruce Springsteen song Nebraska, it tells the same story.

    • I didn’t know about the whole movie within a movie thing with Natural Born Killers and True Romance. Makes sense though, that if True Romance was inspired by Badlands, that the movie that came out of it was also inspired by it.

      I thought the music choices in both Badlands and True Romance (mainly that sort of cheery, plinking, main theme that they both seem to share) help to enhance the bizzare nature of what happens.

      I really liked watching Badlands, and am finding the 70’s to be a fantastic era of filmmaking.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. The 70’s are fascinating ere for film you have the whole “New Hollywood” thing with Coppola, Scorsese, Schrader etc. Then you have the existential road movies like Vanishing Point and Two Lane Blacktop that form a bridge from 60’s films like Easy Rider. Moving on to the “Things will never be the same again” era that followed Star Wars.

    My top ten essential films of the 70’s:
    The Godfather (1 & 2 consider them on film to cheat an extra film onto the list)
    Apocalypse Now
    Taxi Driver
    Life of Brian
    The Exorcist
    Two Lane Blacktop
    The Sting
    Star Wars

    Not sure how many are in your book!

    • Boy, you’re not kidding. The 70’s really were a boon for creativity and expression. I’ve heard quite a bit about it, but I’ve never seen Two-Lane Blacktop (I will see it though for this project.), or The Sting. I did see, and completely enjoy Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I’m still waiting to check out the Exorcist, as my fiancee was so scared by this film that she refuses to be in the same house when it’s being played.

      I guess I’ll have to watch it while she is visiting family, or at work or something.

      Of your list, I’m pretty sure all are in the book, although I’m not positive about Life of Brian. They may have chosen The Holy Grail to represent British comdey from that era instead.

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