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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 5.26%
Average: 10.53%
Pretty Bad: 21.05%
Total Crap: 7.89%

2 reviews, 26 user ratings

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by Jack Sommersby

"Arid, Empty-Headed Crime Tale"
2 stars

Well, the title is certainly catchy, and the shooting locales hold some interest, but overall there isn't much here.

Terrence Malick's Badlands is made by a filmmaker of some talent, but he's wasted that talent on an empty-headed central theme that's neither revelatory nor resonant. Malick, making his directorial debut, also wrote, produced and edited the picture, and reportedly it took years for him to finally see the project though to the end; which is more than a bit surprising being that it runs only ninety-five minutes and has very little weight -- it's so art-consciously vacuous from start to finish, so in love with its heavy-handed sparseness it mistakes for stark "truth," that it winds up neutering our responses to it. It's one of those pictures that demands more from the audience than itself -- we spend an hour and a half trying our best to find our way into it, because the two central characters aren't just shallow but have been conceived shallowly. There's Kit (Martin Sheen), a twenty-five-year-old drifter who's just been fired from his job as a garbage man in a small South Dakota town, and Holly (Sissy Spacek), who's ten years younger and has allowed herself to be seduced by him, much to her advertisement-sign-painting father's disapproval (played by an underused Warren Oates). After the father gives Kit an ultimatum to not see Holly anymore, Kit breaks into their house while they're gone, packs up Holly's clothes, and proceeds to shoot the father dead when he returns and makes for the phone to call the police. Holly's reaction is stunted: she's not glad her father's dead but isn't exactly overwhelmed with grief; in fact, it's hard to get much of a reading on her -- in her voiceover narration Spacek is as affectless as she is when on-screen. And Kit, who models himself after James Dean with his white-T-shirted, blue-jeaned, cowboy-booted self, is bereft of personality, too -- he does what he does just for the hell of it, living "in the moment" with no regard for the consequences when it comes to sating his every want and desire. Both Kit and Holly are the very definition of "unformed" in that they can't see the forest from the trees because they're unaware that a forest exists, so when they hide out after the murder for weeks on end and eventually take to the road after Kit kills three law-enforcement officers who've tracked them to their hideout, and their rebellious escapades start making the newspapers and evening news, they're blithely unconcerned, for it's the widespread attention bestowed upon them that really matters.

Delving into the mind of a sociopath and examining what makes him tick might make for a worthy subject of a worthwhile motion picture, but Malick has instead concerned himself with something else, something facile -- how Kit and Holly's amoral condition is merely representative of Americans' collective mentality, that, when you get right down to it, there's nothing resembling an intrinsic moral sense among us, that we're willing to sublimate conscience for fulfillment. Even after Kit is captured and jailed he's still not defeated, for he's been made a celebrity by the media and adored by the people, even by police officers who have no problem giving him a pat on the back even though he's killed some of their uniformed own during his murder spree. Suffice to say, the picture isn't even remotely believable, because Malick has attempted to implant his ultra-cynical high-mindedness onto a framework that lacks a dramatic impetus -- there's no core, nothing resembling a working-out of a flesh-and-blood characterization that would challenge both the filmmaker and us. Malick trots out a cipher of a character center stage under the impression that this is to be perceived as "daring," that our inability to emotionally relate to the emotionally-defunct Kit is psychologically complex. The barrenness of Kit's mental condition is schematically tied into that of the nondescript "badlands" he and Holly find themselves in the midst of, and we're supposed to be wowed at the supposed significance; there's a paralyzing literal-mindedness to it all, so when Kit offers to crush his and Holly's hands after her virginity has been nondescriptly taken so this event won't be forgotten, we're crushed on the head by the banality. Malick, a highly educated man, doesn't leave anything to chance -- there's not an iota of ambiguity anywhere, and because the visual schema is overcontrolled, with only sporadic moments of expressiveness (due more to Tak Fujimoto's perceptive lighting than Malick's knack for composition), the picture simply doesn't have enough to sustain itself. Maybe a more commanding lead performance would've helped, what with Sheen's unimaginative, uncommunicative work failing to suitably draw us in, though Malick certainly encouraged him to act minimally because of Kit's minimal depth. (No other director would've possibly told Sheen during the filming, "Give me less.")

Badlands is based on a real-life 1958 murder spree involving a nineteen-year-old and his fourteen-year-old girlfriend across Nebraska and Wyoming, and the film is set in the same time period, starting out in South Dakota and ending in Montana. Malick has aimed at deriving some kind of cultural significance from it rather than telling a standardized crime tale with constant crosscutting between the hunted and the hunters, and while we can be thankful for the attempt at giving us something atypical, what Malick has ultimately come up with isn't particularly interesting, or entertaining. Sheen and Spacek have been directed to go the introspective route, but because their characters have little context and absolutely no subtext we're never drawn to them the way we should with full-bodied characterizations. (Even a reliable pro like Oates is ineffective: it were as if Malick had imposed upon him an emotional straightjacket; and I shudder to think of the metaphorical implications of the character's profession.) So with an impersonal pair like Kit and Holly impersonally killing people, the violence doesn't shock us -- except, that is, in the film's best sustained sequence: where Kit's former garbage pal worker (Ramon Bieri) first welcomes the on-the-lam couple into his isolated rural home for some food before making a later attempt to flee in his pick-up; Kit shoots him in the stomach from far away, and rather than finishing him off, Kit allows the man to slowly make his way back into the house and onto a bed to await certain death, with the play of emotions in Bieri's beautiful acting accumulating in a chilling power that's missing from the rest of the film. (Kit having the consideration to open the front door for the wounded man is also a nice touch.) But most of the time Malick's judgment is questionable, even in how long to hold his shots -- the opening section doesn't quite take hold because the visuals are too studied; rather than well-textured small-town dailiness prepping us for the horrific goings-on later on down the line, the fussed-over compositions leave us distanced. Spontaneity is not something Malick has in bountiful reserves, and the flatness of his execution is a considerable liability when his writing is direly lacking in layers -- it's like trying to add more flavor to vanilla by pouring in more vanilla. Badlands is tinny, enervating fluff; it mistakes the attempt at art with the actual achievement of it.

After watching it, your likely response will be, "Now I want to see a real film."

link directly to this review at
originally posted: 02/10/13 05:25:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Brisbane Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Brisbane Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/25/13 David Hollingsworth An unusual, and haunting film that leaves you breathless 5 stars
8/25/13 Fire With Fire Pretentious exploitation of the Charlie Starkweather murders to preach anti-'50s message 1 stars
4/02/13 Caleb Wow. This is a masterpiece. 5 stars
2/13/13 Louis Blyskal Just ok 3 stars
9/26/07 Bitchflaps Anyone who thought this was better than Bonnie and Clyde is out of their mind. 1 stars
3/28/07 zenshark An 98% perfect film. 5 stars
12/28/06 Agent Sands Images that would in most films of this sort be uneven have a serene and serious feeling. 4 stars
10/08/06 Bitchflaps Don't know what Pauline Kael hated so much about it, outstanding performances. 5 stars
12/06/05 Katie Birkey It sucked! 1 stars
9/24/05 millersxing Killing spree films don't have to be overwrought (*ahem* Oliver Stone) to be memorable. 5 stars
5/05/05 Chad C. If you have problems sleeoing put this film in, it will put you down in a hurry. 2 stars
9/22/04 Yeah One of the best movies ever 5 stars
5/29/04 parker Top Ten, beats the crap out of Bonnie and Clyde 5 stars
9/26/03 robbo176 martin sheen is the best actor in the world ever! 5 stars
5/06/03 Unknown Best movie I'v ever seen !!!!! Awesome! 5 stars
10/06/02 Korinth Johanus "best play ever made" - mr little green jeans 5 stars
4/26/02 Charles Tatum Sloooooooooooooooooooooooooow 3 stars
4/19/02 R.W. Welch Expertly done on all levels; not everybody's cup of tea. 5 stars
3/18/02 The Bomb 69 not as good as Bonnie and Clyde, solid nonetheless 4 stars
12/04/01 RHF A must see movie, acting is superb, music is haunting 5 stars
6/24/01 Dean As usual with Malick, looks superb, but I can't say that I care much about characters. 3 stars
8/21/99 Olivia Neutron-Bomb The best film ever made. 5 stars
7/24/99 Quentin Tarrantino A major influence on my work, but I would've cast Pam Grier in the female lead. 5 stars
5/31/99 little jerry The best'couple on the run'film ever.More powerful than Bonnie & Clyde and all the rest. 5 stars
3/05/99 Vick Di Brecci Compared to Days of Heaven, this is a riveting movie. Other than that, it's pretty bland. 3 stars
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  02-Feb-1973 (PG)


  02-Jul-1973 (PG)

Directed by
  Terrence Malick

Written by
  Terrence Malick

  Martin Sheen
  Sissy Spacek
  Warren Oates
  Ramon Bieri
  Alan Vint
  Gary Littlejohn

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