A delicate, shrewdly ironic thing in the moment of its release, Terrence Malick’s debut now has 40 years behind it—and a revolution as well. Badlands, an internalization of the lovers-on-the-run thriller (personified by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, fresh as daisies), is the blueprint for Malick’s entire output, marked by near-whispered narration and communion with the natural world. He’s never quite topped it. But let’s not limit our praise: In the fall of 1973, one could see signposts of cinema’s future in Mean Streets and The Exorcist, yet with this youthful pair of proto-indie dreamers, Malick was paving a whole new road. It turned out to be the path most traveled.
Whatever you think you need to do this week, make some time to settle into a seat at Film Forum and be beguiled. We start in a 1950s South Dakota suburb, one that doesn’t pummel you with gleaming nostalgia. Down an alleyway strolls James Dean—or at least a lonely rambler’s idea of him. Kit (Sheen), the trashman, is done for the day; a discarded mop is no partner compared with the barefoot teen he sees twirling her baton in the grass across the street. Holly (Spacek), blushing, goes with him, even after Kit’s gunshot takes her dad. Quietly, she tells us how she’s feeling—and then, suddenly, how she’s not—yet Malick’s unsentimental images reveal a darker story: crazy, impulsive. Badlands is the American myth of freedom and violence; it doesn’t get old because it remains what we are.
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