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Badlands Print E-mail
Tuesday, 27 April 1999


Warner Home Video
starring: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Ramon Bieri
release year: 1973
film rating: Three and a half stars
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

The phrase "banality of evil" might have been coined just to describe the main characters in director/writer Terence Malick’s ‘Badlands.’ The film zigzags between being creepily compelling and exasperatingly slow, just as its male lead Kit (Martin Sheen) whipsaws between casual homicidal mania and aw-shucks ‘50s optimism.

Malick based his tale on the real-life saga of multiple murderer Charlie Starkweather and his underage girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, though there are suggestions of a number of cinematic influences as well, notably ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ The narrator here is Holly (Sissy Spacek), a 15-year-old cheerleader transplanted from Texas to North Dakota when she meets 25-year-old Kit. Kit treats Holly as though she’s something special, which is a first for her, especially as her possessive widowed father (Warren Oates) barely lets her out on her own. When Holly’s father forbids Kit to see his daughter, Kit shoots the older man dead. Seeing one’s boyfriend murder one’s parent would end most romances, but Holly hits the road with Kit, heading into Montana and a lot more killings.

Malick is one of those rare filmmakers who became a legend while having made only two films, this one and ‘Days of Heaven’ (last year’s ‘Thin Red Line’ is his third). His reputation for extraordinary images is justly deserved. Everywhere there are stark but splendid feasts for the eyes: the overcast skies over endless vistas in Chapter 1; a fabulously colorful billboard looming up against a brilliant blue sky in Chapter 5; Chapter 8’s stunning pyrotechnic visuals as a house burns down with choral music swelling soulfully (and cleanly) on the audio track; Chapter 19’s almost Biblical view of clouds piled above the mountaintops. Capping it all is a pretty amazing car chase in Chapter 22. The DVD also faithfully preserves excellent sound effects, with some train sounds in Chapter 19 doing an especially fine job of showing off the mix and any home audio equipment involved.

However, the most striking element of ‘Badlands’ is the contrast between Holly’s blandly worried tone -- like the mother of a teenager who insists on staying out late -- and Kit’s unprompted shooting sprees. It’s not that she doesn’t acknowledge what Kit is doing, but she can’t let herself feel it. The emotional detachment is sometimes fascinating, sometimes deliberately repellent and occasionally dull. Holly would rather that Kit not kill people, but she’s with him out of passivity rather than fear. When the only two people on view are completely incapable of introspection, they eventually become monotonous company.

This is not the fault of Sheen and Spacek, who are both phenomenal in their roles. Sheen underplays Kit’s lunacy, making him scary precisely because he seems so calmly normal even when he’s about to strike. Spacek finds the perfect pitch of wide-eyed regret and primness as the breathtakingly conventional Holly, whose lack of reflection is pretty frightening also.

On the downside, ‘Badlands’ has a slow pace and its episodic structure is sometimes repetitious. Still, it has Malick’s remarkable eye and his insights into the mundane-seeming demeanor of killers, both strong reasons to recommend it.

more details
sound format:
English Dolby Surround 5.1; French Dolby Digital Mono
aspect ratio(s):
Original Theatrical Aspect Ratio (exact ratio not given); Full-Screen Aspect Ratio: 1:3:3 (modified from original theatrical format)
special features: French Language Track; English Closed-Captioning; French Subtitles; Chapter Search
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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