Retro Review: A Meanness in This World: Traveling Through Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS at Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema

Posted on: Feb 20th, 2015 By:

badlandsBADLANDS (1973); Dir. Terrence Malick; Starring Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek and Warren Oates; Tuesday, Feb. 24 @ 7:00 p.m.; Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Tickets $11; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

If you’re looking for a reason—any reason—to go see a movie, look no further. The Landmark Midtown Art Cinema kicks off its “Midtown Cinema Classics” series with one of the greatest modern American films, Terrence Malick’s debut feature BADLANDS.

Some filmmakers take decades to find their voice. Yet there are others who seem to arrive on this earth fully formed. Orson Welles stormed out of the gate in 1941 having assembled his influences into an entirely identifiable personal style with CITIZEN KANE. David Lynch emerged from the shadows in 1977 with the most David Lynch-iest film ever made, ERASERHEAD. Martin Scorsese captured everyone’s attention with the first example of what can only be called a Martin Scorsese Movie with 1973’s MEAN STREETS (while not his debut, his two previous features were the atypical BOXCAR BERTHA, a project-for-hire under the auspices of Roger Corman, and WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR?, a short film he expanded over the course of several years into a very different feature). And that same year, Terrence Malick debuted his own idiosyncratic means of storytelling with the brooding, brilliant BADLANDS.

Told from the viewpoint of Holly (Sissy Spacek), a 15-year-old girl growing up in The Middle of Nowhere, South Dakota, BADLANDS examines Holly’s infatuation with 25-year-old greaser Kit (Martin Sheen) as they slowly fall in love. While she obsesses over him romantically as they explore each other’s philosophies on life, his own psychotic and amoral side reveals itself and together they violently remove any obstacle that threatens to stand between them and the life with each other they desire. Based loosely on the real-life murderous exploits of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, BADLANDS also stands as a poetic examination of life, love and death set against the dusty, sun-baked plains of the Midwest.

Contemplative in tone and deliberate in pace, BADLANDS set the tone for Malick’s further career as he examined such subjects as war (THE THIN RED LINE), the founding of Jamestown (THE NEW WORLD) and the meaning of life itself (THE TREE OF LIFE). Even at this early stage of his career, though, he proves himself a master of imagery and composition and creates an experience that is pure cinema. Painterly tableaux fill the screen and slowly reveal their emotional heart as Spacek’s narration combines with the haunting strains of experimental classical composers such as Erik Satie or Carl Orff. Moments of incredible beauty are carved out of nothing but light, color and shadow. Divorced from attempts to emulate the rhythms and cadences of literature or stagework, Malick’s world can only exist in those rays of light captured by a camera, painstakingly edited into a cohesive statement and then projected onto a screen.

Badlands-104But lest this sound like a movie full of art-film clichés that holds you at arm’s length with its own sense of pretentious self-importance, BADLANDS is instead Malick’s most accessible film and a perfect entry point for those unfamiliar or intimidated by the visionary director’s work. It may perhaps be his masterpiece (with DAYS OF HEAVEN running close behind). Malick’s singular approach is wed to an incredibly compelling story, so that the dynamic of the narrative propels the audience through even the film’s most low-key moments. When you combine this with the career-making performances of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, you have a film that it is nearly impossible to look away from.

Presented as part of Landmark Midtown Art Cinema’s “Midtown Cinema Classics” series, you have the rare opportunity to immerse yourself in one of the modern classics of American cinema in its natural habitat—on a theater screen. Please do not let this pass you by.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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