DVD Review: Badlands

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Terrence Malick | CAST: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Ramon Bieri, Alan Vint
RELEASE DATE: 3/19/13 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $39.95
BONUSES:
“Making Badlands” featurette, interview with editor Billy Weber, interview with producer Edward Pressman, documentary on Charles Starkweather
SPECS:
PG | 94 min. | Drama | 1.85:1 widescreen | monaural

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

 

 

It’s no surprise that the notoriously interview-shy Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life) appears nowhere in the supplements on this deluxe release of his sublime debut feature, Badlands. According to the booklet in the set, he approved the digital transfer, which is as much as Malick-ophiles can hope for under the circumstances.

The film, which was a commercial failure on its initial release in 1973, is now rightfully hailed as one of the best films to emerge from the “maverick” period of the Seventies. It has aged so well that it could easily be classified as one of the best American films, period.

The plot is a fictionalized variation on the real-life story of road-tripping serial killer Charles Starkweather and his teenage girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. Here garbageman Kit (Martin Sheen, Apocalypse Now) takes off on a killing spree with his majorette girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek, 3 Women) after he fatally shoots her father (Warren Oates, Race with the Devil).

Badlands movie scene

Martin Sheen brings murder to the Dakotas in Badlands.

Their journey is a peculiar coming of age for her and a “statement” of sorts by him — as is marvelously conveyed by Spacek’s incomparably deadpan voiceover narration and the sequences in which Kit buries a makeshift time capsule and leaves “advice” on a tape recorder for any young people who might listen.

One of those absolutely perfect first films that introduces elements that the artist has already mastered and is soon to begin offering variations on (or in some cases leave behind), Badlands ranks with Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (the book, not the telefilm) as one of the best-ever meditations on a distinctly American kind of serial killer. The character of Kit is a charming sociopath who smiles broadly when a cop points out his resemblance to James Dean; he conceives of himself as a philosopher and a rebel, but his only decisive actions are to kill those who get in his way.

The supplements in the package underscore the special conditions under which the film got made. Producer Edward Pressman explains how money he received from his mother (who ran the family toy company) was the essential ingredient in the film’s budget, and how, despite good reviews, the film’s box office was nil until it was re-released in 1979.

Editor Bill Weber, who went on to work with Malick on Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, discusses the film’s tone and its most memorable elements, including Spacek’s humorous yet poetic narration and the exquisite music of Carl Orff. Like everyone interviewed in the supplements, Weber maintains that, while some members of the crew felt that Malick was incompetent because of his odd methods and inexperience, the cast and main crew members were always certain he knew what he was doing.

The seminal extra, the featurette “Making Badlands,” finds production designer Jack Fisk (who is married to Spacek) and the film’s two perfectly-cast leads speaking at length about their experiences. Sheen talks about the months of preparation he participated in without having been officially cast in the film, and the fact that Malick eventually “aged” his part (Kit was 19 years old in the script, and Sheen was 31). Also how some of the most memorable images were born out of Malick’s sudden inspirations.

Fisk underscores the all-important search for locations and his technique of putting knickknacks that would “belong” to the characters throughout the set, even in drawers that wouldn’t be opened on camera. (He also notes that he fell in love with Spacek while working on the film.)

For her part, Spacek speaks about the ways in which she tapped into the “little Texas girl” inside her to play the role of Holly (who is in high school, while Spacek herself was 24 years old). She says that the voiceover Malick wrote for her character was necessary: “There was really no romance in the way the character was portrayed…the voiceover gave her dimension.”

It also added wonderfully jarring doses of everyday poetry and deadpan humor to the film, aspects that viewers appreciated after a few years — she reflects that, at the first public screening of the film at the New York Film Festival, the audience was dead silent throughout the picture.

 

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”