of this quiet town would end in the Badlands of Montana."
Terrence Malick dabbled in philosophy lecturing, journalism and Hollywood script doctoring before deciding to leap behind the camera in the early '70s with a crime drama ripped straight from the headlines. In 1958 Charles Starkweather tore across the heartlands of America, 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate in tow, on a killing spree that took 11 lives. The murders came to an end in Douglas, Wyoming, and Starkweather was eventually executed by electric chair with Fugate serving 17 years in prison.
Malick's lovers-on-the-lam film Badlands shared more than a passing resemblance with the Starkweather story, along with Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, a violent, stylish film that arrived like a thunderbolt in 1967 to shake up American cinema. Yet through Malick's eyes this was a more lyrical, quietly disturbing look at young love and violence than the landmark film that preceded it.
In the opening moments of Badlands Sissy Spacek's Holly Sargis twirls a baton on her front lawn as she meets Kit Carruthers for the first time. He's a local garbage man and greaser, a 20-something with no direction, no hope, and seemingly destined to remain in his backwater town. The only thing he has in his favour is a passing resemblance to James Dean. Sheen was a jobbing TV actor at the time who Malick suspected was too old to play Kit, but now it's impossible to imagine early contenders Don Johnson and Richard Dreyfuss in the part ahead of him.
Being the flood season we built our house in the trees."
Opposite Sheen is Spacek's Holly, a freckle-faced 15-year-old innocent. She lost her mother to pneumonia and lives with her cruel father, who disapproves when Kit takes a liking to her. Kit murders Holly's father and burns her family home to the ground, prompting the pair to set off on a cross country odyssey, surviving in the wilderness, dodging the police and killing anyone who walks into their path.
Though Malick's ubiquitous romanticism is on show, it's jarring to see just how Badlands deals with its dark subject matter. Sheen plays Kit with a certain degree of emotional detachment, putting bullets in his victims almost on a whim. In one scene he shoots a farmer through a wooden door in a field. "Think I got him?" he says before running off and adding: "I'm not going back to find out." If Kit is nonchalant in his actions then Holly is even more so. Spacek's blank, inscrutable stare (used to good effect later in Carrie) is positively chilling.
She's a terrifyingly casual observer, unwilling or unable to react to the violent actions taking place. Malick's use of Holly as narrator is Badlands' secret weapon, helping to lend her character - and the movie - a heart and soul. Strip it away and Malick's film could have ended up as aloof and distant as its lead duo. When asked why he committed his crimes, Kit simply answers: "I don't know. I always wanted to be a criminal, I guess. Just not this big a one. Takes all kinds, though." Sheen later mused of Kit in a GQ oral history of the film: "I'd thought he was so romantic. I'd thought he was so charming. I'd forgotten he killed about 12 people."
Revisiting Badlands, it's intriguing to see just how much of Malick's trademark style he established right from the get-go. The voiceover, the focus on man and woman's relationship with nature and the lyrical visuals are all on show. Badlands is still Malick's most accessible work - even ending in a car chase! - but the threads that connect it to his most recent offering are evident. Holly's baton spinning carries through to Olga Kurylenko's Marina, the twirliest of all Malick's female characters, in To the Wonder.
Badlands also packs in many moments of striking aesthetic beauty, from the haunting inferno of Holly's home to the magic hour sunsets, it's a film that permanently burns images into the viewer's mind. Its influence is far-reaching, too. Bruce Springsteen named the first track from his Darkness on the Edge of Town album after the film and Quentin Tarantino mined it for his early '90s flick True Romance. That homage is clearest in the voiceover from Patricia Arquette's Alabama, and Hans Zimmer's music based on Badlands' signature theme, Carl Orff's 'Gassenhauer'.
Badlands and Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets both sold to Warner Bros on the same day at the New York Film Festival in 1973. It marked a banner year for the studio, which experienced huge critical, commercial and awards success thanks to The Exorcist. Out of that trio, though, it's perhaps Badlands that's mythologised the most, in part due to Malick's long absence from Hollywood. In the end, Badlands still stands as a bonafide '70s masterpiece and one of cinema's great directorial debuts.
Terrence Malick's To the Wonder is in UK cinemas now.