The great achievement of writer-director Terence Malick's Badlands (1973) is that it takes a very familiar story -- two young and alienated lovers on a killing spree -- and makes it seem as though it's never been done before. Though the film is part of a genre with an impressive lineage -- including They Live by Night (1949, dir. Nicholas Ray), Bonnie and Clyde (1967, dir. Arthur Penn) and Natural Born Killers (1994, dir. Oliver Stone) -- there has never been anything quite like it before or since.
The story, set in the '50s and loosely based on the Charles Starkweather murders, is narrated by 15-year-old Holly (Sissy Spacek), a transplanted Texan living with her father in a small town in South Dakota. Her wistful voice-over, somnambulistically romantic in the bored-teenager manner, runs in constant contrast to the bluntly brutal story that unfolds. Holly has met Kit (Martin Sheen), another disaffected youngster, who -- despite the fact that his conversation consists almost entirely of evasive clichés -- has enough native intelligence to intuit a way out of his torpid existence: celebrityhood.
Kit models himself after James Dean, from the pampered pompadour to the expressively resigned postures, and when opportunity knocks -- when he kills Holly's father in an offhand manner that seems almost accidental -- he falls into the role of laconic desperado like a struggling actor finally given a meaningful part. Sheen's performance is simply brilliant. Kit is neither flinty-eyed psychotic nor sociopathic smoothie -- he's just a polite, if troubled, young man who's been given a crack at playing anti-hero and wants to make sure he gets it right. Sheen maintains just the right note of bland narcissism, keeping Kit's acting-out within the range of the character's limited imagination.
This was an amazing debut for Malick, but after only one more film -- Days of Heaven (1978), which shared Badlands' eye for sumptuous vistas, but had a much less compelling story -- no other movie project came to fruition and he disappeared from sight. His third film, an adaptation of James Jones' combat novel The Thin Red Line, is due out sometime this year. A viewing of Badlands is all that's needed to realize the significance of this upcoming event.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.