Badlands [1973]

Still one of American cinema's most powerful, daring filmmaking debuts, Terrence Malick's Badlands is a quirky, visionary psychological and social enigma masquerading as a simple lovers-on-the-lam flick. Inspired by the 1958 murders in the cold, stark badlands of South Dakota by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, the film's plot, on the surface, is similar to that of other killing-couple films, like Bonnie and Clyde and Gun Crazy. Martin Sheen, in an understated, sophisticated performance, plays the strange James Dean-like social outcast who falls in love with the naïve Sissy Spacek--and then kills her father when he comes between them. The two flee like animals to the wilderness, until the police arrive and the killing spree begins. What sets the film apart from others of its genre is Malick's complicated approach. Gorgeous, impenetrable images contrast sharply with Spacek's nostalgically artless narration, serving as ironic counterpoints, blurring concrete meaning, and stressing that nothing this horrific is simple. Malick observes, rather than analyzes, the couple in a manner as detached and apathetic as the couple's shocking actions. No judgment or definitive motivations are offered, though Malick's empathy often leans toward his senseless protagonists, rather than the star-struck society that makes killers famous. Compared with the interchangeable uniform cops who hunt them and the film's other nameless characters stuck in suburban banality, the couple are presented like tarnished, warped and frustrated results of squelched individuality. Badlands, on one level, views America's suffocating homogeneity and, conversely, its continued obsession with celebrities (individuals considered different but adored) as hypocritical. Ambiguous and bold, the movie hints that society may be as guilty as the killers. --Dave McCoy

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