Each week one of the Filmoria team delves into the cinema archives to pick out a film that they feel rather ashamed that they’ve never seen, especially with many regarding these films as ‘classics’. This week, Darryl Griffiths visits A Terrence Malick tour-de-force…
To me, Terrence Malick has always had a remarkable ability to unearth a transcendent beauty and truth within a frame, that at first glance is seemingly sparse and superfluous in nature. Possessing a fearless freedom of expression that elevates the plot structures crafted, he’s always thrived in being awfully enigmatic behind and away from the camera. A paltry three films between 1973 and 1998 (Days Of Heaven and The Thin Red Line to name two), only for him in his twilight years to increase the output, audaciously attempting to answer the big questions that are forever posed in our everyday lives through 2011’s The Tree Of Life and 2016’s Voyage Of Time.
Thrusting himself into the spotlight once again with the upcoming Song To Song, looking to encourage a certain Miss Mara to put a twist on a particular Kaiser Chiefs track (Rooney, Rooney, Rooney!), relying on Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender’s respective La La Land and Frank experiences to provide the harmonies. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part. Before my ears are exposed to potential musical bless, I thought it was time I clapped eyes on the one Malick effort I have shamefully never seen, which funnily enough is the film that kick-started his illustrious career.
From the outset, Badlands embodies many of the visual and narrative traits that have become synonymous with the director and epitomises why i’ve always been a great admirer of his cinematic body of work. A lean and mean yet powerfully potent American crime story set in the dying embers of the 1950’s, through the baton-twirling naivety of Sissy Spacek’s Holly and the deadly deadpan persona of Martin Sheen’s Kit, the film is consistently subverting the audience’s initial perceptions of these characters.
His garbage man beginnings a metaphor for the trashy and troubled excess of his psyche, embarking on a relentless killing spree painted across the vast canvas of South Dakota and Montana, partly based on the bloody real-life antics of Charles Starkweather. The James Dean comparisons on a superficial level as he embraces the traditional jean jacket and white t-shirt look, deepening into a rebel with a warped cause arc.
In lamenting the vacant minds that surround him implying they have awfully little to say about their lives, complimented here by the dead-end surroundings, his craving for significance and purpose is both fascinating and frightening. The poise and politeness littered throughout Sheen’s superbly detached performance is thrillingly disarming in its contradiction, carving out this brilliantly bizarre celebrity status for himself. Consistently piling up rocks which could be easily translated as his own murderous signature. Offering out ‘souvenirs’ to perplexed cops.
His severe disconnect with the harsh reality of his situation feeds into Spacek’s Holly too. Ten years younger than Kit and our innocuous narrator of the piece, Holly delivers the philosophical, ethereal qualities that Malick has looked to refine in his recent offerings. Through her slight frame and shy demeanour, she creates a neat juxtaposition with the assured Kit, as we grow attuned to her mesmerising musings.
Immediately taken in by his matinee idol looks, it’s his killing of her dad and the distinct lack of emotion shown by Holly that encapsulates how oblivious they are together. Prompting the inquisition and unlikely romanticism of their ‘journey’, as balloons ascend wondering whether she will have days of happiness with Kit again, longing for the purity of her formative years that has been driven away.
If my first viewing of Badlands proved anything, it’s that my appreciation for the uncompromising, lofty intentions of its director has reached new heights. A sumptuously shot debut anchored by two stunning star turns that jars through the ingenuity of its musical choices (the use of Nat King Cole’s A Blossom Fell truly inspired), with the meditative and lyrical approach laying the solid foundations for this amazing auteur’s career.
Rather like this film’s final frames, we may often wonder if Malick has his head in the clouds with his ideas, but how he consistently leaves you on cloud nine exploring them.