On Criterion Blu-Ray from Mon 15 April 2019

On reflection, Terrence Malick’s debut is memorable not for the incendiary themes of patricide and post-war juvenile delinquency, but for the road-movie methodology which underpins the meta-physical musings of a one-time philosophy protege. Characterised by economical direction and the efficient manner in which the simple tale unfolds, what appears like a well-structured and executed debut is fraught with difficulties, as first-timer Malick struggles with budget, studio and schedule.

Badlands draws from the true story of Charles Starkweather and Caril-Ann Fugate and examines issues of mortality and transcendental notions of death and “crossing to the other side”, as the pair embark on a murderous holiday through Nebraska in 1959.  Re-imagining the pair as Kit, a greaser loner (Martin Sheen), and Holly, an adolescent naïf (Sissy Spacek), removes any historical constraints and produces a certain detachment in the relationship between audience and protagonist.

Whilst Badlands‘ narrative simplicity is quite unlike the material that lured Malick back from a self-enforced sabbatical some years later, the film still contains his signature poetic narration, evocative score and nature-oriented cinematography (Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner, Bryan Probyn). The latter is deployed to contrast the nascent domesticity of Holly living like a lost boy before their forest idyll is disturbed and Kit is once again using his gun like a magic wand to make problems disappear.

Modern audiences have cited the lack of explanation and exposition as a weakness, but the absence of history or place merely lends more mystique to the character of Kit. The lone-teen-with-bereaved-father motif may seem flimsy, but it’s sufficient to convey the blank canvas that was Caril-Ann Fugate and the casting of Sissy Spacek still seems apposite considering the industry’s early opposition to her homely ways and Texan accent.

The Colorado vistas which stand in for Nebraska perfectly capture the emptiness and moral vacuum that resided in Kit’s psyche. As a satire on celebrity adulation, the sequence in which Kit holds courts on an airfield and bestows his various trinkets and worldly possessions to the massed law enforcement is the scene with the most dialogue, yet Malick directs as though he was eavesdropping on the incident. The banality of evil is further highlighted with the appearance of a postman walking past, completely oblivious to the significance of this man.

As a debut filmmaker, Malick is characterised by his circuitous route to Hollywood; he arrived at film almost as an afterthought, having dabbled with lecturing at Massachussetts Institute of Technology and some journalism. His interest in photography developed through bird-watching and is evidenced in the focus on wildlife in his canon and this transfer, which was supervised by Emmanuel Lubezki and Maria Palazzola, perfectly recreates the original visuals.