Badlands (1973)

D: Terence Malick
S: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates

Terence Malick's Badlands is the American nightmare par excellence. On the surface a story of two young people on the run and on a killing spree, it refigures a familiar sub-genre as a black comic fairy tale. Viewed as a product of the New Hollywood cinema of the late sixties and early seventies, this may be seen as part of the refiguration of American identity defined in films such as Targets, The Parallax View and The Conversation. Yet the film deliberately avoids the social consciousness of its most immediate predecessor, Bonnie and Clyde, and takes a detached, amoral stance which makes it singular among its contemporaries.

It neither justifies nor decries the actions of its characters, and never makes explicit commentary either on the system or the outsider likely to identify its sympathies. Instead, it tells a story about two characters, a starry-eyed 'true romance' addict (Sissy Spacek) and a white trash James Dean wannabe (Martin Sheen) who think they are in a different story altogether. Their world is unreal, a chimerical fantasy of angst and futile rebellion which results in the deaths of several people. But, significantly, both the story on screen and the film on the whole prove nothing. It is not a fable with a moral, but an exercise in cinematic storytelling which is as much concerned with the effects of narrative as it is with its mechanics.

Spacek narrates with a dreamy detachment; telling a romantic tale of girl meets boy straight from her pulp magazines. She sits and speaks with terrified victims, even those bleeding slowly to death in front of her, as if they were friends in the schoolyard. She tells them how Sheen can be a little strange sometimes; as if his acts of violence were simply the sulkings of a moody adolescent. Sheen, meanwhile, fulfils his own fantasy of fame and notoriety. He pauses to record messages which he thinks will serve as moral exemplars: "listen to your parents," he tells a dictaphone, "they got a line on most things," meanwhile he shoots the father of his girlfriend whose objection to their relationship he has found too much of an affront to his self-inscribed life script.

It is terrifying, yet hilariously correct. The film has the tone of a dreadful dream; phantasmagorical, yet convincing within its own frames of reference. Though it constantly seems to subvert itself, it returns every time to its own starting point: the cinema as a medium of narrative. It first seems one thing, then becomes another, and yet sustains its unique texture from start to finish. Stunning photography by Tak Fujimoto and a marvellous music score culled from several sources are matched with the unwelcome harshness of the Montana badlands the Dakota woods, producing a combination of the pictorial and the real which is as disconcerting as the clash between narration and action on screen. Sheen and Spacek are also marvellous, blissfully unaware and self-absorbed yet consistent in their behaviour and characterisation.

Though some moments are obvious (the 'Vietnam' sequence where the couple take up residence in a tree house and prepare booby-traps for self-defence), the film on the whole is fresh and surprising, even after more recent attempts at the same formula (including Mad Love, the remake of Gun Crazy, Natural Born Killers and of course, True Romance). It is a superb example of screen direction and the ability of the cinema to operate beyond the confines of script and narrative without denying either their capacity to work upon the audience.

Its self-reflexivity could be reduced to the platitudes of postmodernism, but it is more accurately described as a work of poetry. It is active, vibrant and alive in a way that so few American films are that it seems mystifying that it remains ranked among the 'cult' films which pepper film history instead of among the best. It is something of an acquired taste however, and some may find it alienating and confusing. Of course, that kind of reaction is usually a signal that something interesting it going on on screen. Badlands is worth the effort, and is essential viewing for anyone serious about film.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.